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Small cubes with no exterior moving parts can propel themselves forward, jump on top of each other, and snap together to form arbitrary shapes.
In 2011, when an MIT senior named John Romanishin proposed a new design for modular robots to his robotics professor, Daniela Rus, she said, “That can’t be done.”
Two years later, Rus showed her colleague Hod Lipson, a robotics researcher at Cornell University, a video of prototype robots, based on Romanishin’s design, in action. “That can’t be done,” Lipson said.
In November, Romanishin — now a research scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) — Rus, and postdoc Kyle Gilpin will establish once and for all that it can be done, when they present a paper describing their new robots at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.
Known as M-Blocks, the robots are cubes with no external moving parts. Nonetheless, they’re able to climb over and around one another, leap through the air, roll across the ground, and even move while suspended upside down from metallic surfaces.
Inside each M-Block is a flywheel that can reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute; when the flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube. On each edge of an M-Block, and on every face, are cleverly arranged permanent magnets that allow any two cubes to attach to each other.
A prototype of a new modular robot, with its innards exposed and its flywheel — which gives it the ability to move independently — pulled out. Photo: M. Scott Brauer
“It’s one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time,” says Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL. “We just needed a creative insight and somebody who was passionate enough to keep coming at it — despite being discouraged.”
As Rus explains, researchers studying reconfigurable robots have long used an abstraction called the sliding-cube model. In this model, if two cubes are face to face, one of them can slide up the side of the other and, without changing orientation, slide across its top.
The sliding-cube model simplifies the development of self-assembly algorithms, but the robots that implement them tend to be much more complex devices. Rus’ group, for instance, previously developed a modular robot called the Molecule, which consisted of two cubes connected by an angled bar and had 18 separate motors. “We were quite proud of it at the time,” Rus says.
According to Gilpin, existing modular-robot systems are also “statically stable,” meaning that “you can pause the motion at any point, and they’ll stay where they are.” What enabled the MIT researchers to drastically simplify their robots’ design was giving up on the principle of static stability.
“There’s a point in time when the cube is essentially flying through the air,” Gilpin says. “And you are depending on the magnets to bring it into alignment when it lands. That’s something that’s totally unique to this system.”
That’s also what made Rus skeptical about Romanishin’s initial proposal. “I asked him build a prototype,” Rus says. “Then I said, ‘OK, maybe I was wrong.’”
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