Current robots are usually self-contained entities made of interdependent subcomponents, each with a specific function. If one part fails, the robot stops working. In robotic swarms, each robot is an independently functioning machine.
In a new study published today in Nature, researchers at Columbia Engineering and MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), demonstrate for the first time a way to make a robot composed of many loosely coupled components, or “particles.” Unlike swarm or modular robots, each component is simple, and has no individual address or identity. In their system, which the researchers call a “particle robot,” each particle can perform only uniform volumetric oscillations (slightly expanding and contracting), but cannot move independently.
The team, led by Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia Engineering, and CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, discovered that when they grouped thousands of these particles together in a “sticky” cluster and made them oscillate in reaction to a light source, the entire particle robot slowly began to move forward, towards the light.
“You can think of our new robot as the proverbial “Gray Goo,” says Lipson. “Our robot has no single point of failure and no centralized control. It’s still fairly primitive, but now we know that this fundamental robot paradigm is actually possible. We think it may even explain how groups of cells can move together, even though individual cells cannot.”
Researchers have been building autonomous robots for more than a century, but these have been non-biological machines that cannot grow, heal, or recover from damage. The Columbia Engineering/MIT team has been focused on developing robust, scalable robots that can function even when individual components fail.