This week the former MIT student known as John Romanishin revealed a plan - and working demo units - of a modular self-assembling robot pods. These little beasts may seem the thing of nightmares when they move independently, attach to one another and stand up on their own - but they're not currently in a place where they're going to take over humanity any time soon. The idea for these robots was initiated by Romanishin in 2011, when he was an MIT senior in Professor Daniela Rus's robotics class - now he's a research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the plans have been made real.
Romanishin has teamed up with postdoc Kyle Gilpin to show these cubical bots off to the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, showing not only a presentation of the cubes in research paper form, but in practice as well. M-Cube prototypes already exist, and they're able to do all the tricks described by the researchers in their presentation paper - without external moving parts.
For M-Blocks, movement includes climbing up to and over one-another, leaping up from the ground, and connecting to one another (and nearby metallic surfaces) with magnets. To achieve these moves, M-Blocks also work with an internal flywheel. These flywheels reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute, and are able to move the blocks with internal momentum.
What's more, these robots are also statically stable. This means that if you're controlling the robot from afar and decide you want to "pause" their movement, they can stay stuck in any position.
"There’s a point in time when the cube is essentially flying through the air. 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.” - Gilpin
The team suggests that these robots could be used in the future for self-assembling furniture, reconfiguration of broken bridges, and of course "swarm into environments hostile or inaccessible to humans" for diagnosing problems and returning with information. Using the cubes as storage containers could also see users moving through a building while their unit climbs the side of the structure, meeting them up at the top - a lovely alternative to moving that couch through 10 flights of stairs, yes?