Tuesday, October 8, 2013

M-Blocks – Self-assembling Robots on the fly

This would appear to be the age of that isn’t possible becoming possible. Back in 2011 when an MIT senior, Romanishin,  proposed a new design for modular robots, his professor said can’t be done. Fast forward two years and his professor showed a video of prototype robots using the same design and the colleague said no, can’t be done.

That MIT student  is now a research scientist with CSAIL (MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab). Now he will present a paper for the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots & Systems and finally establish to all, it is indeed possible.

They are called M-Blocks and they are self-assembling robots quite literally on the fly. They sart off as a simple cube. No external moving parts yet they can climb around and find the other M-blocks they seek to unite with. Able to leap through the air, perform remarkable feats, their unique abilities are due to a flywheel that reaches 20,000 rpms and when it throws on the brakes, gives its angular momentum over to the cube.

That covers motion but how does it bind together? Thanks to a cleverly arranged group of magnets that are on each end and similar to rolling pins. When the two cubes come together, the magnets naturally rotate to align their poles (north with south…) with the other cube and then forms a connection. This incredible method accomplishes something that many have tried, but had become discouraged.

Others managed to design a sliding-cube design, but it is a complex design & development. This design came out of simple. Make things simple. Sometimes trying to get something to do everything with parameters and restrictions prevents what is the ultimate goal. Reaching a place where others couldn’t get to required rethinking it all, and simplifying it.

The next phase will seek to miniaturize the M-blocks and form a system where the appearance of the self-assembly becomes that of liquid. Call them Transformers as they can become whatever a ladder, a desk, a chair, a robot. Perhaps they could fill in the areas of a bridge that had a partial collapse or assist an astronaut in a colony on Titan that can’t quite reach his tools.

The idea of working as a group, that somehow one lonely cube can become so much more has become a truth not only philosophically, but robotically. And they said it couldn’t be done!

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