In 2011, MIT senior John Romanishin told his professor, Daniela Rus, about his new design for modular robots involving brightly colored blocks which have no external moving parts, but can spin, hop, and assemble themselves into modular machines. Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL, told him: “That can’t be done,” but, he eventually did it, despite it being supposedly impossible.
The robotic self-assembling boxes are called M-blocks. Though the outsides of the blocks look very simple, according to Rus “the insides are very unique.”
These robots can be reconfigured, unlike most other types of robots, to meet whatever task they might be called upon to perform.
Romanishin has had the idea for quite some time. He compares it to the T-1000 robot, the unstoppable liquid-metal android of Terminator 2. He says that the basic idea of having a robot that can shift its shape and reconfigure itself “has been in a lot of people’s minds from movies like ‘Terminator‘ and other popular culture references.”
How do the M-blocks move?
The mechanism that enables the blocks to move are flywheels inside of them. The flywheels are amazingly effective, and allow the blocks to spin at an amazing 20,000 rpms. According to MIT roboticist Kyle Gilpin, they can brake down to zero in a mere 10 milliseconds.
This rapid halt to the momentum of the flywheels causes all of the energy to transfer to the frame of the cubes, which makes them flip.
Gilpin states that a “low amount of energy” transferred by the flywheels to the frames of the cubes will just cause them to move forward. An intermediate amount can cause the blocks to climb walls, and the highest level of transferred energy results in the flipping, or jumping, of the blocks.
Also, if two cubes are facing each other, one of them can move up the side of the other one. Then, without changing their orientation with each other, it can slide across the top of the stationary one.
There are two cylindrical magnets on each side of the cubes. They are fastened onto the cubes and resemble rolling pins. The magnets naturally rotate when two cubes approach each other. North poles align with south, allowing any face of any cube to attach to any face of any other cube.
How do the cubes assemble themselves into other shapes?
Magnets are the keys to both the movement of the blocks and also to how they can assemble themselves into various structures or shapes.
There are magnets on the boxes’ edges that can be used to make one cube grip another one, or to cause a block to flip and create a new configuration, all without breaking the magnetic connection, other than to allow for the flip.
Researchers currently send radio signals to the blocks to direct their movements, but they envision the day when they will be able to directly put the algorithms into the cubes.
When that day comes, the cubes will conceivably be able to make their own decisions about where and how to move, to best fit the potential situation and demands that they must meet.
What are some of the possible uses and applications for these robotic blocks?
According to Professor Rus, the robotic blocks will have a large number of possible applications. They can eventually be used to probe and inspect suspect, damaged pipes, or to build temporary bridges or repair buildings, for instance. They could be even used to construct furniture, or heavy equipment, or to raise scaffolding.
Also, their irregular, tumbling motion could allow them to explore irregular, rubble-strewn terrain, and to inspect tunnels or travel through the remains of bombed buildings looking for survivors or terrorist suspects.
Some of the cubes could be specialized, carrying with them cameras, battery packs, or lights. If one of them gets separated from the others, it can rejoin them later.
The researchers at MIT are now working on building a small army of 100 of the M-blocks, and guiding them with algorithms they’ve developed.
Eventually, Romanishin says, he wants there to be hundred of the cubes, which will “be able to identify each other, coalesce, and autonomously transform into a chair, or a ladder, or a desk, on demand.”
Romanishin has already faced the impossible, having been told by more people than Professor Rus that what he was attempting to accomplish “couldn’t be done.” Yet, he followed his dream, and he figured out a way to make it come true.
Robotic self-assembling blocks are now a reality, thanks to Romanishin. Soon, they will be virtually everywhere, and used for potentially thousands of applications.
Written by: Douglas Cobb