By Rachel Gordon
If faced with the choice of sending a swarm of full-sized, distinct robots to space, or a large crew of smaller robotic modules, you might want to enlist the latter. Modular robots, like those depicted in films such as "Big Hero 6," hold a special type of promise for their self-assembling and reconfiguring abilities. But for all of the ambitious desire for fast, reliable deployment in domains extending to space exploration, search and rescue, and shape-shifting, modular robots built to date are still a little clunky. They’re typically built from a menagerie of large, expensive motors to facilitate movement, calling for a much-needed focus on more scalable architectures — both up in quantity and down in size.
Scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) called on electromagnetism —electromagnetic fields generated by the movement of electric current —to avoid the usual stuffing of bulky and expensive actuators into individual blocks. Instead, they embedded small, easily manufactured, inexpensive electromagnets into the edges of the cubes that repel and attract, allowing the robots to spin and move around each other and rapidly change shape.