Little magnetic robots climb and tumble, roll about the ground, leap through the air and even move while suspended upside down. Called M-Blocks, these cube-shaped bots are stable and mobile and could one day work together to self-assemble into different types of furniture or equipment, could reconfigure into scaffolding for building projects or could tumble into disaster areas and reconfigure themselves to survey the area.
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Conceived of by MIT student John Romanishin, each M-Block has a flywheel inside that spins at up to 20,000 revolutions per minute. When it stops, the rotational force transfers to the cube, causing it to roll. If the flywheel spins fast enough the cube will jump. Each cube has magnets on the face and on the corners. The face magnets stick the cubes together, while the ones on the corners help keep the cubes in contact as they jostle for position. The magnets on the faces of the cubes can be turned on or off.
Because the robots are cubes, they're stable; it's relatively easy to stack them up into different configurations. Cubes can also slide alongside each other relatively easily, and don't need any fancy armatures or manipulators to pull themselves together.
The result: M-Blocks can form almost any desired shape. You can watch the robots in action here.
Romanishin came up with the idea in 2011 at the request of Daniela Rus, the head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Now Romanishin is a research scientist at CSAIL and along with Rus, and postdoctoral researcher Kyle Gilpin, will present a paper describing the M-blocks at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.
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A remote-control program run from a laptop controls the blocks. But there's no reason they can't be programmed to form specific shapes ahead of time. And while a bunch of cubes might not sound like much, imagine a thousand of them working together. One could build a temporary structure, for instance, that would take itself down when no longer needed.
Credit: M. Scott Brauer/ MIT