Self-Assembling Modular Robots Spin into Place

By Norman Chan

MIT Project solves a problem that the modular robotic community has been working on for a long time.

MIT research scientist John Romanishin, robotics professor Daniela Rus, and postdoc Kyle Gilpin have prototyped a new system of robots that can be reconfigured into different shapes and arrangements. These electronic cubes--called M-Blocks, are based on the principle of modular robotics, in which a large number of programmable units can align themselves and coalesce to create unique structures for completing different tasks. For example, a thousand cubes could combine to form the shape of a chair, and then reconfigure to become a ladder on demand. The problem that had faced modular robotics was how to get these units to disconnect and reconnect with each other without external assistance, or the use of a complicated set of motors.

Their solution, which may be a breakthrough in modular robotics, combines the use of magnets and a single spinning actuator. Each cube has a flywheel that can spin up to 20,000 revolutions per minute, which when brakes gives the cube directional angular momentum. That momentum is used to launch the cube toward another--in some cases even making a small jump--where face magnets on the cubes then lock the units into place. The engineers designed the cubes with beveled edges and strategically placed cylindrical magnets so that the cubes naturally attach and pivot along their edges, creating a seamless connecting motion as the cubes spin into place. Each M-Block is currently radio controlled, but the plan is develop algorithms for them to work semi-autonomously. MIT's new video below explains the system further.

Romanishin, Rus, and Gilpin will present a paper describing in detail their robotics system at an International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in November. According to MIT, their future plans include building an army of hundreds of these cubes and finding ways to miniaturize their design, with the ultimate aim of creating swarms of micro-robots that and transform and morph into any shape at will.