Shape-Shifting Robotic Swarms For Real?


Swarms of robots that use electromagnetic forces to cling together and assume different shapes are being developed by US researchers.  The grand goal is to create swarms of microscopic robots capable of morphing into almost any form.  Take a look at the below video to see what will be possible in the future when this form of nano-technology is perfected.

No Moving Parts

These prototype robots use electromagnetic forces to move about, communicate, and even share power.  One set of robot prototypes are cylindrical, free-wheeling robots with a ring of electromagnets around their edge, which they used to grab hold of one another.  By switching these electromagnets on and off, the so-called “claytronic atoms” or “catoms” could securely attach and roll around each other to effect shape shifting.  The robot’s wheels were not powered, so they make these robots the first of their type to have no moving parts.  The prospects for these tiny robots should they come to be is astonishing.  Right now, software not hardware, may be the biggest challenge facing researchers working on these swarming robots.

Claytronics is an idea for a set of tiny robots able to reform themselves into an infinite number of shapes.  Seth Goldstein, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon, has been working to create thousands of these tiny robots that can be manipulated with electromagnetic forces to create various forms.

The idea is that each tiny robot can autonomously move into position relative to the others.  It’s basically programmable form matter!  Shape shipping robots could be programmed to create any 3-D shape, human, furniture, and game pieces.  “The research path from here to having millions of these working together to form a 3D replica of you in my office is going to be a long and circuitous route,” says Goldstein. The robots cannot communicate and must act only on what they can see around them.  They follow simple rules to fulfil their task – mimicking the way insects work together in a swarm.

When will these shape-shifting robots leave the lab and enter our lives?  It’s difficult to put an exact timeline on it, but Goldstein said he expects to see them functioning in the real world within five to 25 years.  The next step could be in developing self-replicating forms.  Robots that would mimic life.  In fact people are working on this project right now.

Hod Lipson and colleagues at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, built a self-replicating device using small mechanical building blocks that can swivel, and also attach themselves to one another using electromagnets.  This device can build an exact copy of itself.  Is this potentially dangerous?

Well, if you remember the bad guy robot in Terminator-2 was a shape-shifting robot, you might think twice.