Simple, cube-shaped robots developed by MIT scientists may be able to self-assemble structures, raise scaffolding for building projects, or temporarily repair buildings and bridges during emergencies.
The modular robots, called M-Blocks, have no external moving parts, but they are capable of climbing over and around each other, spinning, jumping and snapping together, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
MIT News announced the technology Friday (Oct.4).
M. Scott Brauer / MIT
The M-Block, shown here with its interior exposed, is powered by a flywheel that spins at a speed of 20,000 revolutions per minute.
The researchers said the colorful acrobatic blocks can also travel while suspended upside down from metallic surfaces.
The team—led John Romanishin, a research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)—plans to present its findings next month at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Tokyo, Japan.
Long Time Coming
“It’s one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time,” Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL, said in a statement.
“We just needed a creative insight and somebody who was passionate enough to keep coming at it—despite being discouraged.”
Rus was referring to Romanishin, who began working on the project in 2011, as a senior at MIT.
In describing the technology, MIT said each M-Block is equipped with a flywheel that spins at a speed of 20,000 revolutions per minute. When the flywheel is braked, it reports its angular momentum to the cube, the team said.
“On 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,” MIT relates.
The team further describes the robot and demonstrates its abilities in this MIT News video.
Rus said researchers who study reconfigurable robots have long relied on a technology called the “sliding-cube model.” In that model, if two cubes are facing each other, one of them can slide up the side of the other and, without changing orientation, slide across its top.
The sliding-cube model simplifies the development of self-assembly algorithms, but the robots that implement them tend to be much more complex, according to MIT.
Giving up on Stability
Instead, the team wanted a more simple design.
They were able to do that by giving up on the principle of static stability, MIT said. Existing modular devices are statically stable, meaning that “you can pause the motion at any point, and they’ll stay where they are,” according to postdoc Kyle Gilpin, who also worked on the project.
“There’s a point in time when the [M-Block] is essentially flying through the air,” Gilpin said. “And you are depending on the magnets to bring it into alignment when it lands. That’s something that’s totally unique to this system.”
This technique was also what made Rus skeptical about Romanishin’s initial proposal.
A Self-Assembled Future?
Currently the team is sending commands to the M-blocks via a radio signal, Gilpin explains in the MIT News video.
But ultimately, the team wants to put the algorithms on the modules themselves, which would allow them to autonomously accomplish tasks.
“We want to be able to take a large group of cubes and tell them ‘form this shape’ and give those instructions at a very high level, and then have the cubes decide on their own how to go about accomplishing that task,” Gilpin said.
While a focus of the ongoing research is on miniaturization, the scientists believe that a more refined version of their current system could prove useful in a variety of applications.
“Armies of mobile cubes could temporarily repair bridges or buildings during emergencies, or raise and reconfigure scaffolding for building projects,” MIT reported.
The robots could also be used to assemble furniture and equipment or even go into hostile environments or those inaccessible to humans, to diagnose problems and reorganize themselves to provide solutions, the team said.
MIT scientists aren't the only ones researching robot technology and its use in the construction industry. For example, a student from Sweden's Umeå Institute of Design, developed ERO, a concrete deconstruction robot, which may hold the future for building demolition and recycling.