MIT Researchers Develop Self-Assembling Robots
John Romanishin, a research scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), along with his former robotics professor, Daniela Rus, and postdoc Kyle Gilpin, will be presenting a paper at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems describing their new self-assembling robots.
The robots, known as M-Blocks, are shaped like cubes that have no external moving parts. However, they have the ability to climb, jump, and roll. They can even move while they are suspended upside down from metallic surfaces.
Each M-Block is composed of a flywheel that can reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute. When the flywheel comes to a halt, momentum is produced, allowing the cube to move.
The M-Blocks are also equipped with tiny magnets that let them attach to one another. They have two cylindrical magnets on each edge that are mounted like rolling pins, and when the M-Blocks get near one another, the magnets rotate so that the north poles align with the south poles. This allows the cubes to attach no matter which sides are facing each other.
“It’s one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time,” says Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL. “We just needed a creative insight and somebody who was passionate enough to keep coming at it — despite being discouraged.”
Kyle Gilpin said that existing modular robot systems are “statically stable.” This means that their motion can be paused at any point and they will stay exactly where they are. In order to get where they are today, the researchers at MIT had to give up on that idea and find something new.
“There’s a point in time when the cube is essentially flying through the air,” Gilpin says. “And you are depending on the magnets to bring it into alignment when it lands. That’s something that’s totally unique to this system.”
The researchers believe that eventually these cubes could contain lights, cameras, or other equipment to transport. Right now they’re building 100 cubes that will be able to move in any direction and are guided by algorithms.
“We want hundreds of cubes, scattered randomly across the floor, to be able to identify each other, coalesce, and autonomously transform into a chair, or a ladder, or a desk, on demand,” Romanishin says.