Research: Mobile robots that can merge and morph
Self-reconfiguring modular robots that can merge, spilt and even self-heal while retaining full sensorimotor control have been demonstrated in Nature Communications this week. The work may take us closer to producing robots that can autonomously change their size, shape and function.
According to the article, ‘Mergeable nervous systems for robots’, “Robots have the potential to display a higher degree of lifetime morphological adaptation than natural organisms. By adopting a modular approach, robots with different capabilities, shapes and sizes could, in theory, construct and reconfigure themselves as required.”
Many robots are controlled by robotic nervous systems in which sensors and actuators are connected to a central processing unit. However, in most cases these systems are mapped strictly to the shape of the robot, which limits flexibility in their capabilities. Adaptability could be improved using modular robots, made up of multiple units that can form collective bodies, but coordination and control of modular robots have been constrained by a limited set of predefined shapes that the units can form into.
Marco Dorigo and colleagues at Universite Libre de Bruxelles design modular robots that can adapt their bodies by splitting and merging to become new independent robotic entities, autonomously choosing appropriate shapes and sizes in response to the task or environment. Their robotic nervous systems can also split and merge to maintain sensorimotor control. These robots can even self-heal by removing or replacing malfunctioning parts, including a malfunctioning brain unit. Potential functions include detecting, lifting and moving objects, such as bricks. The system is demonstrated using 10 units, but the authors suggest that the system may be easy to scale up. They propose that in the future, robots will no longer be designed and built for a particular task, and suggest that their system could eventually inspire the production of robots that can adapt to changing task requirements.
The videos below show two experiments:
- MNS robots collaborating to extend capabilities.
- MNS robots exhibiting self-healing behaviour.
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