Tech News: Modular Robot Blocks

March 17, 2014
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It looks like MIT scientists have hit the jackpot and created modular robot blocks that can self-assemble and then reconfigure. These M-Blocks also need no breakable external moving parts. Their ability to move comes out of a new ability to minimize their connective parts and harness the momentum of an internal flywheel with the ability to maintain speeds of 20,000 revolutions p/m, allowing them to jump, climb over one another, spin, roll, reverse and make rapid peripheral adjustments without probes, wheels or legs.

What takes these robots a step further than the World War II and fifties-era clanking fodder for so much sci-fi escapism is how far engineers have come with magnets. Magnets on the corners of the blocks are used for course correction and stability. Consequently, one small leap results in an M-Block snapping tidily into place atop its brother.  None go walkabout, or trip and skitter off a platform’s edge, although, theoretically, they are safe should this happen to them, too.  This is because chamfered corners on the cubes enhance the strength of the magnetism as the cubes rotate over each other to take up new positions.

Reconfigurable modular robots, with no external moving parts, have long been the Holy Grail of modular robotics. “It’s one of these things that the community has been trying to do for a long time,” Dr. Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL, told MIT News. “We just needed a creative insight and somebody who was passionate enough to keep coming.”

Modular Robot Blocks

With the objective set for design of self-assembling and, more importantly, self-reconfiguring robot systems, their innate ability to change their geometry according to task is exciting because, according to previous thinking, a robot designed for a single task had to have a fixed architecture. That robot would perform a single task well but do poorly if commandeered to do a different task in a different environment.

What this means, if we’re thinking patience over the very long term, is the end product of much modular robotics research is the ability to miniaturize modules so much that swarms of self-assembling microbots (or even nanobots) can be created. As such, they would be capable of configuration and reconfiguration into different forms, shapes and sizes, and changing their function accordingly. On, say, the battlefield of the future, they could be their own emergency surgeons, doing advanced triage upon themselves, cannibalizing and recycling useful parts as they remove and reject that which cannot be fixed.

Short-term-thinking-wise, the researchers behind M-Blocks feel there are multiple potential use-cases for their still slightly awkward, reconfiguring robo-cubes. One current architectural difficulty they may help provide a short-term solution to is bridge problems. Atypical are the long-term engineering issues caused by the earthquakes periodically suffered in the San Francisco bay area of California. The bridge system between the cities of San Francisco and Oakland is a case in point. MIT engineers believe that large numbers of the blocks could be used to temporarily repair bridges or buildings during emergencies, while, simultaneously, others could raise and reconfigure scaffolding, or assemble different types of furniture or heavy equipment. Different cubes could also carry out different functions — such as a camera, lights or a battery pack placement — to augment overall function for maintenance and repair work in awkward, limited spaces. Teams of emergency workers composed of humans and robots are no longer the stuff of sci-fi movie spectaculars, but, rather, a very practical modern means of working on (and in) locations that are extreme in topography and climate. Tasks, often petty ones, but which are dangerous, can now be carried out without any possibility of humans coming to any harm.

What we’re looking at here is very exciting to witness. M-Blocks are a physical version of Tetris which self assembles; the ability to go from chaos, to robot-assisted order. And for those who know their Dr. Who, Dalek armies screaming “Exterminate!” in clipped Massachusetts accents, one thing is for sure, expensive robot research will soon be much, much cheaper and can, ultimately, be practically useful for all citizens.

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