Researchers from MIT, Columbia University, and elsewhere have developed “computationally simple robots” that connect in a kind of swarm to move around, transport objects, and complete other tasks.
The disks or “particles” are made of plastic and loosely connected by magnets around their perimeters. Each unit can only do two things: expand and contract.
Each particle is about 6 inches in its contracted state and about 9 inches when expanded. That motion, when precisely timed, allows the individual particles to push and pull one another in coordinated movement.
In a video, the researchers demonstrate a particle robotic system moving and fluidly changing directions toward different light bulbs as they’re clicked on, and working its way through a gap between obstacles.
Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of the team leaders, took inspiration from biological cells to create the particle robots.
“We have small robot cells that are not so capable as individuals but can accomplish a lot as a group,” says Rus and other researchers that worked on the paper.
“The robot by itself is static, but when it connects with other robot particles, all of a sudden the robot collective can explore the world and control more complex actions. With these ‘universal cells,’ the robot particles can achieve different shapes, global transformation, global motion, global behaviour, and, as we have shown in our experiments, follow gradients of light. This is very powerful.”
Notably, none of the particles directly communicate with each other or rely on one another to function, so particles can be added or subtracted without any impact on the group’s functionality as a whole.
The particle robotic systems can complete tasks even when many units malfunction.
The units “work together without relying on any particular individuals,” says Rus.
Their hope is that miniaturized versions of the particles could be used in search and rescue operations and to find buried victims in collapsed buildings and rubble.
They suggest that even tinier units could also be used to deliver drugs to hard-to-reach parts of the human body.