Building Technologies

Video: Self-assembling robot modules can flip, jump and even leap together

31 October 2019

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed robots that can communicate with each other using a barcode-like system to accomplish tasks such as forming a line, following arrows or tracking light.

Getting robots to work as a swarm has proven to be a hurdle for scientists, but MIT CSAIL was able to get an autonomous fleet of 16 blocks to climb over and around one another, leap through the air and roll across the ground.

The process involves a modular “M-Block” and inside each block is a flywheel that moves at 20,000 revolutions per minute, using angular momentum when the flywheel is braked. On the edge and every face of the robotic blocks are permanent magnets that let any two cubes attach to each other.

MIT CSAIL said in the future that the robots could build a temporary staircase for climbing up to a roof or to the basement in a building that was damaged during a disaster or fire. Researchers said the robots could also be used in things such as gaming, manufacturing and healthcare.

“The unique thing about our approach is that it’s inexpensive, robust and potentially easier to scale to a million modules,'' said John Romanishin, a CSAIL Ph.D. student involved in the project. “M-Blocks can move in a general way. Other robotic systems have much more complicated movement mechanisms that require many steps, but our system is more scalable.”

How they did it

Each module can move in four directions when placed on any one of the six faces of the cube, which results in 24 different movement directions. Without arms, the robots move easier and avoid damage and collisions, MIT said.

To get the robot blocks to communicate, the team developed algorithms to accomplish tasks, which led to the creation of the barcode-like system where the robots “sense” the identity and face of the other blocks they connect with.

While testing the robots, the team turned them from a line into a random structure to see if the modules could determine a course when connected to each other. If they weren’t connected, they picked a direction and rolled one way until ending up at the end of the line. In the experiment, 90% of the M-Blocks succeeded in getting into a line.

The next steps are to make the M-Block swarms larger and capable of forming various larger structures.

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