This is an artistic rendering of a project that's being developed at EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne). The Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS) is working on a robot (yes, that's totally a robot) made up of soft, floating modules that connect to each other through electroadhesion.
Electroadhesion, of course, is engineering magic that works by using very high voltages to generate a charge differential between two surfaces, causing them to stick together. The nice thing about electroadhesion (besides the fact that it works even on non-conductive surfaces) is that it's flexible, making it an ideal dynamic connector for soft, modular robots. Where EPFL is really going nuts, though, is with these soft robotic modules that float:
It might be a bit of a stretch to call these things robots, but what to think about here is the potential of electroadhesive connectors for both soft robotics and robotic systems where weight is at a premium. In order to really call something like this a robot it (arguably) needs at minimum to be equipped some sort of sensor, and that's what EPFL is working on next: adding "active deformation and sensing" to the reversible electroadhesive connector.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.