Scientists at MIT have created tiny, millimeter-scale robots inspired by proteins that join together and can fold into various shapes. Though the research is still in its incipient form, these tiny robots could pave the way for the first real-life Transformers.
Appropriately called milli-moteins, the robots can’t shape into complex shapes like a car or spaceship. Actually, at first glance they might not like much. Though they might look like a common assortment of metal rings and strips – something you might find lying around in your workshop drawers – make no mistake, these tiny mechanized modules are complex and powerful.
“It’s effectively a one-dimensional robot that can be made in a continuous strip, without conventionally moving parts, and then folded into arbitrary shapes,” said Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.
Designed based on watchmaking techniques and inspired by proteins’ natural folding ability, the milli-moteins join together to form the world’s smallest chain robot.
Though the research is funded by DARPA, the scientists do not have an immediate goal. Applications for such a smart system range from devices that change shape or swap materials to accommodate new environments to real-life Transformers, but the research is less aimed that solving a particular problem, as it is at exploring the milli-moteins potential.
“In the world field of programmable matter, this is very much like the early days of computers, where much of the research is so general that the common thinking is that there must be things that this is useful for,” said Ara Knaian, Ph.D., of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “Part of the research that we’re now involved with is to find that killer application for this.”
Each of the tiny robots is powered by a special kind of motor, similar in working principle to giant electromagnets used in scrapyards to lift cars, that can hold its position firmly even with power switched off. The motor is comprised of a series of permanent magnets paired with electromagnets which are arranged in a circle and drive a steel ring that’s situated around them. By switching between magnetic fields, the magnets ” do not take power in either the on or the off state, but only use power in the changing state,” using minimal energy overall, according to the researchers. The MIT team designed these motors from scratch.
“This result brings us closer to the idea of programmable matter — where computer programs and materials merge to form a new kind of matter whose shape and function can be programmed — not unlike biology,” said Hod Lipson, an engineering professor at Cornell University. “Many people are excited today to learn about 3D printing and its ability to fabricate any shape; Gershenfeld’s group is already thinking about the next episode, where we don’t just control the shape of objects, but also their behaviour.”
Though the shapes illustrated by the scientists may not seem very complex or intricate, like the letter “L”, the MIT scientists have shown after simulating a mathematical model that virtually any 3-D shape could be assembled by folding a sufficiently long string.
Devices of the future might re-assemble to meet new purposes
Currently the chain of robots assemble themselves sequentially, but the scientists are confident they can improve their design, such that the folding of the string could be made multiple joints at a time. Ultimately, a reconfigurable robot should be “small, cheap, durable and strong,” Knaian says, adding that right now, “it’s not possible to get all of those.” Still, he points out, “Biology is the existence proof that it is possible.”
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.