Imagine that you could toss an object such as a wrench into a container filled with tiny robots and, within seconds, the robots would "sense" the shape of the wrench and bind to each other to form a replica of the tool. Creating robots that could turn this sci-fi-like scenario into reality is the goal of an MIT team led by Professor Daniela Rus. They call the technology Smart Sand.
The project still has a long way to go. The robots the researchers have developed consist of relatively large cubes, each 12 millimeters on a side, but the team hopes to be able to shrink the modules in the future. In the mean time, the group is addressing another challenge: How to convey the shape of an object to lots of modules that have limited computational resources.
At this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in St Paul, Minn., Kyle Gilpin, one of the researchers, presented an algorithm capable of doing just that. He also showed video of a working prototype that, although it can duplicate only a very simple object, shows the potential of the technology.