The biggest engineering challenges are getting the modules small enough to fit into tight places, such as four-inch water pipes, for example, that need to be inspected or even the human vascular system.
"Being tiny is useful when you want to fit through some narrow passages," Gross said.
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The other issue is communication. Rather than having the robots receive orders through a "master" robot or computer brain, the modules agree among themselves on what actions to perform. The next step is adding the ability to achieve more complex tasks.
"We are taking a radical approach where different modules work together without communication or arithmetic computation," he said. "They are simply taking action based on what they perceive, this requires just the ability to store information and then they immediately act. We need technology that doesn't have a heavy processing load, but can accomplish something."
Seth Goldstein, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, says that modular robots could work in liquid, air or on land. Swarming modular robots are already being deployed by other research labs like bees, bats or birds, for example.
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"If you build a special purpose robot, it can be less expensive, more efficient but it only does that task," he said. "As robotics moves into more areas of our lives, the ability to adapt to the task will become more important. You want robots that can change their shape and bring different amounts of resources."
Nikolaus Correll, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, said he likes the idea of routing water through the little cubes to keep them moving together and cover a larger area in the ocean.
"Pumps are readily available and solve the interface challenge (being waterproof) quite well, which might make them advantageous over existing propeller-based propulsion," Correll wrote in an e-mail. "The modular concept is advantageous as it would allow many of such modules to travel great distances in a safe and reliable manner, where they can then deploy into smaller subsets, allowing to cover larger areas with simultaneous sensing."
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