"Sand Robots" to Assemble Themselves Into Larger Objects
Technology Articles 4/6/12
By: Chris Capps
Researchers are attempting to unlock the secrets of self-sculpting tools that connect together to form any shape necessary. The tiny robots will cling to one another and fasten tight to form tools that can be used in a variety of situations and when not in use collapse back into a pile of sand. The material could be used in a variety of situations, and each grain of sand would have information embedded into it very similar in function to the DNA in human cells.
The device being described is very similar to a larger and more limited version of the nanites described in science fiction. While the devices would have a limited use, these tiny robotic particles have already taken their first steps forward. Currently, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on experiments with cubes less than 3/8". The cubes can already fasten together using tiny magnets, and the team is moving forward with shrinking these tiny robots, which they call "smart pebbles" down even more.
Essentially all of the robots work together in one massive amorphous robot-like being that can then turn around and serve a number of purposes. But while the current projections suggest the robots could become solid state objects, such as tools or useful components, it might be possible one day for amorphous robots to be created that operate on a much smaller scale, making it possible not only for tools, but even moving devices and more autonomous machines. The idea immediately conjures up images of the 1991 film "Terminator 2" and the liquid metal T-1000.
While the sand is projected to become feasible in the next decade, we won't likely be seeing more complex systems for some time. Futurists have warned for years that the limitations of a robot similar to the one seen in the Terminator series, capable of restructuring itself to take any shape would be considerable.
First, there is the problem of a power source. The tiny robots would have to take one of two routes for power distribution on their surface or a combination of both. First, there is the possibility that they would store power individually, most likely through tiny batteries. These batteries, if they were conventional like the batteries we use today, would have a limited amount of power. This would make it very difficult for any single piece of the puzzle to generate enough power to move its appendages.
Another possibility would involve a much larger battery, around which the individual pieces would form and generate electricity independently. This second approach would turn the entire robot into a sort of power grid, carrying electricity between the different microscopic robots from a core source. This method would effectively make the robot a core power source surrounded by "power lines" that were themselves the same components that made up the whole.
While these sand-like robotic parts may come about in the next ten years, anything more advanced may still be quite a way in the future. In the mean time, it appears scientists are taking us steps closer to the future each day.