When building robots, we tend to think of using the same standard components — motors, actuators, limbs, and onboard computers — all coming together to form the construct. Researchers from Georgia Tech are changing that view by developing a large robot created by smaller robots known as Smarticles (smart active particles), which offer a potentially new locomotion technique. The tiny 3D-printed robots were designed with a pair flat arms that only do one simple thing, flap back and forth, but when five of the robots are confined in a circle, the nudge each other and form a larger robot, known as a Supersmarticle, capable of moving itself.
The researchers state that by adding a light or sound sensors would allow them to control the Supersmarticle through a maze. While that doesn’t seem like a significant breakthrough, it could lead to new locomotion and control methods for smaller robots that could change their shape.
“These are very rudimentary robots whose behavior is dominated by mechanics and the laws of physics. We are not looking to put sophisticated control, sensing, and computation on them all. As robots become smaller and smaller, we’ll have to use mechanics and physics principles to control them because they won’t have the level of computation and sensing we would need for conventional control.” — Dunn Family Professor Dan Goldman at Georgia Tech’s School of Physics
As mentioned earlier, the Smarticles are designed using a pair of 3D-printed arms, which are attached to servos and connected to an Arduino Pro Mini that’s outfitted with a battery and light or sound sensor. By themselves, the tiny robots actuate their arms and typically head off in random directions, but when in a confined space, they work together and can be controlled.
When an intense beam of light hits a Smarticle sensor, the robot becomes inactive, which causes the other connected robots to either lurch forward or backward, depending on where the idle robot is positioned in the Supersmarticle. That inactivity gave the researchers a rudimentary way to steer the robot, and move it predictably. The researchers envision future work with Smarticles will lead to interactions that are more complex, giving them more exceptional capabilities.