The Loh Down On Science

Finally! Robots that build themselves!

M. Scott Brauer / MIT

A prototype of a new modular robot, with its innards exposed and its flywheel — which gives it the ability to move independently — pulled out.

Our robot overlords have arrived.  And they’re so cute!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science. 

Meet MIT robotics researcher, John Romanishin.  He recently tackled a problem that’s long challenged robot designers.  Making modular bots that assemble themselves.  Think the liquid-metal “T-1000” from “Terminator 2.”

So far no one has perfected a practical design.

But Romanishin’s idea?  Move all moving parts inside!  Then cover the outside with magnets so they can stick together. 

He designed two-inch, cube-shaped robots.  He calls them “M-blocks.”  Each block contains a tiny motorized flywheel and brake.  Plus a radio receiver to accept commands.  

The flywheel spins up to 20,000 revolutions per minute!  When you signal the brake?   Simple physics!   The same effect as slamming the brakes on a car.  The blocks, like passengers, hurl forward!  Even somersault!  The magnets then draw them together.  With controlled starts and stops, they climb each other.

Romanishin envisions tiny M-Block armies.  Scattered across a surface, they would find each other and coalesce into forms.  Say, furniture.  Or scaffolding.  

Before locking us out and taking over?  “Sorry, Dave!”'

*****Watch a video of M-blocks here!*****

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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