In the 2014 Disney animated movie "Big Hero 6," our hero Hiro (see what they did there?) invents cube-shaped microbots that swarm and link together to create virtually any object, shape or machine. In science fiction, the concept of swarming, hivemind nanobots isn't new, but Disney transformed the idea into some of the coolest animated effects of the year.
We're not quite at the stage of swarming microbots yet, but researchers at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, are heading in that direction. The team has created a fleet of flying 3-D pixels powered by quadcopter drones encased in lightweight cubes.
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Think of it as a sort of macro test run for future nanobot swarms. Developed at the Queen's University's Human Media Lab, the BitDrones system is being billed as a first step toward creating "interactive self-levitating programmable matter."
The BitDrones system actually incorporates three different kinds of 3-D pixels, or "voxels." The cubic ShapeDrones feature a light mesh and 3D-printed geometric frame around the miniature quadcopter. PixelDrones carry an onboard LED and small dot matrix screen. DisplayDrones are fitted with a curved and lightweight touchscreen monitor.