By themselves, nothing is awe-inspiring about MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Laboratory’s M-Block robots, but bring them together, and they can self-assemble into different structures, an impressive feat by any means. The little cubes have been in development over the last six years, and have now gained the ability to jump, flip, spin, and recognize each other. Communication is done using a barcode-like system, which is on each face of the cubes, allowing them to identify the other cubes around them.
Their autonomous fleet of 16 M-Block robots can now perform simple tasks, such as forming an arrow, lines, or tracking light sources. Housed inside each block is a flywheel that spins at 20,000 RPMs, along with a series of permanent magnets, which enable them to perform the new maneuvers and assemble into different forms depending on the task, including stairs first responders could use for climbing up or down to rescue victims. CSAIL Ph.D. student John Romanishin explains, “The unique thing about our approach is that it’s inexpensive, robust, and potentially easier to scale to a million modules. M-Blocks can move in a general way. Other robotic systems have much more complicated movement mechanisms that require many steps, but our system is more scalable.”
The M-Blocks are capable of moving in 24 different directions without the need for robotic limbs, making it easy for them to get around obstacles and avoid other structures. The latest update is on the communication end, with the addition of the barcode system. Romanishin designed the algorithms that lets the M-Blocks perform simple tasks or what he calls “behaviors,” which led to the idea of using a barcode-like system the blocks can use to recognize the identity and face of the other cubes that are connected.
In one experiment, the engineers wanted to see if the M-Blocks could form a straight line and form a random structure using the new communication algorithms. They waited to see if the blocks could determine how they were connected, and then what direction they would need to move to create that line. They found that 90% of the block swarm knew which motion and guidance to move to accomplish the task.
While that is an impressive feat using only 16 M-Blocks, the engineers hope to create a more substantial swarm of blocks that can assemble to form more complex structures with new capabilities.