In 2011, when research scientist John Romnishin was a senior at MIT, he created a prototype of robotic cubes with the help of his professor, Daniela Rus, and colleague, postdoc Kyle Gilpin at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). There are no external moving parts, but the cubes have the ability to climb over and around one another.
The cube-shaped robotic modules, known as M-Blocks, can spin, somersault and connect together to make various shapes, depending on the task given.
“This is exciting because a robot designed for a single task has a fixed architecture,” says Professor Rus. A ‘fixed architecture’ may perform a single task well but, under unknown or unpredictable environments, perform poorly if it is unable to adapt. Thus, “it is better to consider modular robots that can attain whatever shape is needed for the manipulation, navigation or sensing needs of a task.”
These blocks also have the ability to assemble themselves. The cubes can leap through the air, roll on the ground and be in motion while hanging upside down from metallic surfaces.
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“Inside each M-Block is a flywheel that can reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute; when the flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube,” according to CSAIL. “In each edge of an M-Block, and on every face, are cleverly arranged permanent magnets that allow any two cubes to attach to each other.”
The research team’s ultimate goal is for the cubes to become miniaturized. Like the liquid metal androids from “Terminator,” they are looking forward to creating a swarm of microbots that can self-assemble.
But for now the researchers’ short-term goal is to refine this version of their system to be useful at something, like, patching up bridges or buildings during emergencies, or lift up and rearrange scaffolding for building projects.
“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,” said Romanishin.