The building of a robot typically involves the same sort of components no matter what the purpose of the bot is. Robots need things like motors, actuators, body segments, legs, and wheels. Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have created a larger robot using smaller robots known as “smarticles.” Smarticles is short for smart active particles.
The smarticles are designed to do only one thing, flap their two arms. When five of them are connected in a circle, they can nudge each other and form something called a supersmarticle that can move by itself. Scientists say that they could add light or sound sensors to allow the supersmarticle to move in response to the stimulus.
The resulting robot can be controlled well enough to navigate a maze. The team says that the emergent behavior of a group of the smarticles would potentially change robot shapes. The researchers say that the robots are “very rudimentary” with behaviors dominated by the laws of physics.
The team has no intention of putting sophisticated controls into the robots, or sensing and computational hardware. The team says that since the robots lack the computational and sensing needed for conventional control, they have to rely on mechanics and physics.
The project was supported by the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation. Construction of the smarticles used a 3D printer to create the smaller components, which are powered by a battery. The smarticles have motors, simple sensors, and limited computing power. They are only able to change direction when they interact with other devices enclosed by a ring.
The team did find in testing that if the battery in one smarticle died, the supersmarticle would start moving in the direction of the stalled robot. The team has future plans for their work, including more complex interactions that use simple sensing and movement capabilities. The Army is interested because of the potential to lead to new robotic systems that could change shape.