Taking a cue from biological cells, researchers from MIT, Columbia University, and elsewhere have developed computationally simple robots that connect in large groups to move around, transport objects, and complete other tasks.
This so-called “particle robotics” system — based on a project by MIT, Columbia Engineering, Cornell University, and Harvard University researchers — comprises many individual disc-shaped units, which the researchers call “particles.” The particles are loosely connected by magnets around their perimeters, and 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 carefully timed, allows the individual particles to push and pull one another in coordinated movement. On-board sensors enable the cluster to gravitate toward light sources.
In a Nature paper published today, the researchers demonstrate a cluster of two dozen real robotic particles and a virtual simulation of up to 100,000 particles moving through obstacles toward a light bulb. They also show that a particle robot can transport objects placed in its midst.
Particle robots can form into many configurations and fluidly navigate around obstacles and squeeze through tight gaps. Notably, none of the particles directly communicate with or rely on one another to function, so particles can be added or subtracted without any impact on the group. In their paper, the researchers show particle robotic systems can complete tasks even when many units malfunction.
The paper represents a new way to think about robots, which are traditionally designed for one purpose, comprise many complex parts, and stop working when any part malfunctions. Robots made up of these simplistic components, the researchers say, could enable more scalable, flexible, and robust systems.
“We have small robot cells that are not so capable as individuals but can accomplish a lot as a group,” says Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “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 behavior, and, as we have shown in our experiments, follow gradients of light. This is very powerful.”
Image Credit: MIT/ Youtube
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