Robot assemblers build structures out of identical modular pieces

Pushing forward on the vision of "programmable matter," MIT researchers demonstrated a new kind of assembly system based on robots that can collaboratively build complicated structures from small identical pieces. Professor Neil Gershenfeld, graduate student Benjamin Jenett, and their colleagues present their research in a scientific paper titled "Material–Robot System for Assembly of Discrete Cellular Structures." From MIT News:

“What’s at the heart of this is a new kind of robotics, that we call relative robots,” Gershenfeld says. Historically, he explains, there have been two broad categories of robotics — ones made out of expensive custom components that are carefully optimized for particular applications such as factory assembly, and ones made from inexpensive mass-produced modules with much lower performance. The new robots, however, are an alternative to both. They’re much simpler than the former, while much more capable than the latter, and they have the potential to revolutionize the production of large-scale systems, from airplanes to bridges to entire buildings.

According to Gershenfeld, the key difference lies in the relationship between the robotic device and the materials that it is handling and manipulating. With these new kinds of robots, “you can’t separate the robot from the structure — they work together as a system,” he says. For example, while most mobile robots require highly precise navigation systems to keep track of their position, the new assembler robots only need to keep track of where they are in relation to the small subunits, called voxels, that they are currently working on.

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These 3D-printed shapeshifting bots can crawl, jump, and catch things under magnetic control

MIT researchers designed and 3D-printed an array of soft, mechanical critters that are controlled by waving a magnet over them. The shapeshifters that fold up, crawl, grab things, and snap together into intricate formations may someday lead to new kinds of biomedical devices. For example, one of the devices "can even be directed to wrap itself around a small pill and carry it across a table." From MIT News:

“We think in biomedicine this technique will find promising applications,” says (MIT mechanical engineer Xuanhe Zhao.) “For example, we could put a structure around a blood vessel to control the pumping of blood, or use a magnet to guide a device through the GI tract to take images, extract tissue samples, clear a blockage, or deliver certain drugs to a specific location. You can design, simulate, and then just print to achieve various functions.”

In addition to a rippling ring, a self-squeezing tube, and a spider-like grabber, the team printed other complex structures, such as a set of “auxetic” structures that rapidly shrink or expand along two directions. Zhao and his colleagues also printed a ring embedded with electrical circuits and red and green LED lights. Depending on the orientation of an external magnetic field, the ring deforms to light up either red or green, in a programmed manner.

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