The Bulletin

Science has made real life Transformers

Posting in Technology

"Transformers" like the sentient ones in the fictional series don't exist yet, but MIT scientists have created modular robotic cubes that self-assemble into many different combinations.

Work on the robots, called M-blocks, began two years ago under the vision of MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) researcher John Romanishin while he was a senior at the university. Romanishin will present a paper describing how it was done along with his former professor Daniela Rus and postdoctoral researcher Kyle Gilpin next month. Rus initially said that the design was "impossible" to make; MIT announced working prototypes on Friday.

"It's one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time," said 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."

How it all works still sounds fantastic. M-blocks have no external moving parts yet are able to move over one another and even leap into the air or roll around with specially arranged magnets, MIT said in a press release. Every M-Block contains a "flywheel" that can move at up to 20,000 revolutions per minute, which enables it to move. Any two robots can combine due to the flywheel's angular momentum that rotate the magnets to be polar opposites. That's where it gets interesting: the M-blocks can be programmed to make things.

Think of it almost as a 3D printer without the printer. Algorithms guide the M-block robots to identify each other and coalesce into patterns such as a chair, ladder, or desk, MIT says. Randomly scattered onto a floor? It doesn't matter - the M-blocks could still form shapes. MIT is hoping that the robots can be miniaturized into "microbots" that can self-assemble similar to the "liquid metal" android in "Terminator II" or a Transformer.

So for the time being, MIT's M-blocks can transform but don't yet "roll out."

Researchers at other U.S. universities also recently happened upon a way to build the Star Wars "lightsaber." Science is making it a rollickingly great year for Sci-Fi fans.

Check out video of the M-blocks in action:

(image credits: MIT, Wikipedia)

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— By on October 7, 2013, 9:38 AM PST

David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure