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Robots for Real: MIT's Shape-Shifting Robots

Daniela Rus wants to create self-reconfiguring robots that can change their shape'and become anything

3 min read

This segment is part of "Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real."

In this special report, we meet some of the world’s most creative minds in robotics to find out how their robots will transform our lives—for real. “Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real,” a coproduction of IEEE Spectrum magazine and the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering, aired on public radio stations across the United States.

Hosted by Susan Hassler and Ken Goldberg
Senior editor: Erico Guizzo

Robots for Real: MIT's Shape-Shifting Robots


Narrated by Glenn Zorpette
Reported by Laurie Howell

Glenn Zorpette: Robotics engineer Daniela Rus sees a future in which robots not only do what we want, they become what we want.

Daniela Rus: So that anybody can make whatever robot they need on demand, much like a child might make a toy out of clay, except that now we have electronic clay where every particle of the clay has smarts and can work with other particles to make new and interesting and on-demand things.

Glenn Zorpette: Rus and her team at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab create "self-reconfiguring robots" and "programmable matter"—essentially, robotic systems so smart, so flexible, they can become anything. So if robots were the size of, say, Legos, what would you build?

Daniela Rus: You can tell your bag of Legos, "Make me a boat, and then disassemble and make me a plane, and then disassemble and make me a horse," and the Lego blocks would be able to do that without the human input.

Kyle Gilpin: So this is a demonstration of our system, and what's happening here is five phases…

Glenn Zorpette: Kyle Gilpin designed the lab's first system of "programmable matter by sculpting." It's a collection of identical robotic cubes, each 4 centimeters wide, and these cubes are built and programmed to connect and communicate with each other to form things. Gilpin tells them what to do by sculpting the shape he wants on his computer.

Kyle Gilpin: So we can say we want these modules in the structure and these modules out of the structure, and once we've sculpted on the computer screen the information is then transferred back to the structure, distributed within the structure, and then the modules that aren't supposed to be a part of that goal shape break off and peel off, like you'd peel the layers of an onion off, and they fall away, and you're left with the structure that you sculpted on the computer screen.

Glenn Zorpette: Gilpin recently downsized his original design, and the cubes are now just 1 cm wide. The smaller they make these robotic cubes, or programmable matter, the more flexible they are to create different shapes. They're already smaller than Legos, but the goal is for them to be no bigger than a grain of sand.

Kyle Gilpin: The way that I think of this system is, we have a bag of this smart sand and it's kind of the universal tool kit, so say you're a scientist at South Pole over the winter and there's no way of getting supplies in and out and you need a specific tool, so you can convey that information to your bag of smart sand, shake it up, the modules in the bag bond together and unbond selectively. Once that process is done, which would be quick, you reach in and grab your screwdriver or wrench or whatever tool it is you've made, use that tool. When you're done with it, you can put it back in the bag, it disintegrates, and you can repeat the process for something else.

Glenn Zorpette: One of the major challenges in creating self-reconfiguring robotic systems and programmable matter is finding construction materials.

Daniela Rus: If you make a couch out of these modules, it's going to have a lot of corners. It's not going to be very comfortable until we can really get the fabrication to produce millimeter-scale objects.

Glenn Zorpette: Another goal is to make self-reconfiguring robots smart enough to adapt to their environment or task without human guidance.

Daniela Rus: For instance, if the robot's mission is to travel long distance across country and the robot arrives in front of the tunnel, the robot should figure out that the best thing to do at this point is to squeeze through the tunnel in the form of a snake.

Glenn Zorpette: Rus says such robots could be sent into dangerous situations or remote regions of the planet to carry out missions…the sky is literally the limit.

Daniela Rus: So it's a very exciting time. I think that the age of robotics is really upon us, and I really think that robotics is the next disruptive technology, so we will see a great impact in everyday life because of advances in how we make machines and how we control them.

Glenn Zorpette: I'm Glenn Zorpette.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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