There are many modular robots that are designed to self-assemble in some form or another to complete any given task- MIT’s Robotic Molecule, the EU’s Symbrion, and VNIT’s ReBiS are great examples of how these types of robots work. All of these have one thing in common and one they don’t — they can all self-rearrange themselves to overcome obstacles that impede the task given, and they also can’t alter their surrounding environment to get the job done.
That’s where the ModLab’s (University of Pennsylvania) SMORES-EP (Self-Assembling Modular Robot for Extreme Shapeshifting-Electro Permanent magnets) robots shine, as they are capable of doing both. Each square robot features magnetic wheels, giving them the ability to assemble into many different configurations and to handle jobs regular bipedal/multi-pedal robots can’t.
Each face of the square modules features electro-permanent magnets that can form bonds between other modules or even different metal objects. These magnets can be turned on or off by sending a pulse current through the coil of each wheel, allowing for those connections and maintaining a force of 89-Newtons even without power.
Each module has its own onboard battery and communicates with one another through the inductive coupling of the magnets, essentially turning them into short-range radios. They can even converse with a central computer over an 802.11 Wi-Fi connection, which provides them with a level of autonomous ability through a custom algorithm that features configuration discovery, root module search and matching and mapping.
To interact with and alter their environment, the robots are equipped with an imaging system that utilizes an RGB camera, giving them the ability to see objects, distances, heights and obstacles. The information is analyzed and processed through the centralized system and then provides the robots with instructions on how to complete any given task.
Depending on that objective, the robots will configure themselves into an efficient shape and/or uses objects in their vicinity to help them accomplish the task. If the system can’t find a solution to the problem, the robots will disassemble themselves until provided with new instructions. There’s a lot of potential here for what the SMORES-EP robots could accomplish, so it will be interesting to see where this technology advances.