Scientists create cubic robots that can change shape in space
Scientists from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT and the University of Calgary have developed a modular robot system that can transform into different shapes. ElectroVoxels have no motors or moving parts. Instead, they use electromagnets to move around each other.
Each edge of an ElectroVoxel cube is an electromagnetic ferrite core wrapped in copper wire. The length of each ElectroVoxel side is approximately 60 millimeters. The total cost is only 60 cents.
When the polarity of a magnet is changed, the edges attract or repel each other. This causes the cubes to move into a different orientation. Circuit boards and electronics inside each cube control the direction of current from each electromagnet.
Robots have two basic movement types. They can rotate around the edge of another cube or cross from one ElectroVoxel to another. A software scheduler can be used to schedule reconfigurations. A user can highlight specific magnets, control the speed of the cube’s movements, and ensure that they will not collide with each other.
The researchers say it is possible to control up to 1,000 ElectroVoxels with the software. Users can tell the blocks to transform into different shapes, such as changing from a chair to a couch. They can decide which cube should move in which direction, and the software will determine the electromagnetic assignments needed to perform the task.
Scientists tested ElectroVoxels in microgravity on a parabolic flight. They found that robots can operate in low gravity environments. As such, the researchers say ElectroVoxels could be used to modify and create structures in space.
They suggest robots could alter a spacecraft’s inertial properties, which could alleviate the need for additional fuel for reconfiguration. According to scientists, this solves many problems related to launch mass and volume. They hope the system will eventually enable a range of space-related use cases, such as augmenting and replacing structures over a series of launches, and building temporary structures to aid astronauts and assist in spacecraft inspections.
A future version of ElectroVoxels may allow the creation of self-sorting storage containers. However, to make it easier for the robots to reconfigure themselves in Earth’s gravity, the researchers say more detailed modeling and optimization would be needed.
“While the potential benefits in space are particularly great, the paradox is that the favorable dynamics provided by microgravity means that some of these problems are also easier to solve – in space even small forces can move great things,” said Martin Nisser, a CSAIL PhD student and lead author of a paper on ElectroVoxels. “By applying this technology to solve real, near-term problems in space, we can hopefully incubate the technology for future use on Earth as well.”