'Swiss Army Knife' Of Robots Created
December 3, 2012

MIT Creates The ‘Swiss Army Knife’ Of Robots

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims its researchers have created the "Swiss army knife" of robots.

The milli-motein robot is caterpillar-sized and reconfigurable, capable of becoming almost anything, according to MIT.

Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT´s Center for Bits and Atoms created the robot with the help of scientist Ara Knaian and postdoctoral associate Kenneth Cheung.

“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," Greshenfeld said in a statement.

In order to create milli-motein, the team had to invent an entirely new kind of motor that was both strong and able to hold its position firmly without power. They created a new system called an electropermanent motor to create the robot.

The motor is similar to the giant electromagnets used in scrapyards to lift cars, according to MIT. The university said the two magnets are designed so that their fields either add or cancel power, depending on which way the switchable field points.

The force of the powerful magnet can be turned off at will, without having to power an enormous electromagnet the whole time.

In the miniature version of this magnetic system, a series of permanent magnets paired with electromagnets are arranged in a circle. These help drive a steel ring that is situated around them.

Knaian said that “they do not take power in either the on or the off state, but only use power in the changing state,” using minimal energy overall.

Milli-motein is a follow-up on a paper published last year that examined the possibility of assembly any desired 3D shape by folding a long string of identical sub nuts.

“We showed that you could make such a universal system that´s very simple,” Cheung said in a statement.

The team has not proved a way of always finding the optimal path to a given folded shape, but they did find several useful strategies for arriving at practical folding sequences.

MIT professor Erik Demaine, who coauthored the previous paper, said the folding of the shape doesn't have to be sequential. He said that ideally, you would like to do it all at once, with each of the joints folding themselves to the desired configuration simultaneously so the loads are distributed.

Other researchers have looked into the idea of creating reconfigurable robots from a batch of separate pieces that could self-assemble into different configurations. However, Gershenfeld's team found that a string of subunits capable of folding itself into any shape could be simpler.

They wrote in Foreign Affairs about a technology roadmap for accomplishing that, talking about establishing a global network of more than 100 "fab labs" that provide community access to computer-controlled fabrication tools.

The design information is contained in an external computer rather than in the materials being manufactured. The research goal is to digitize the materials so they can change their own shape.

"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," Hod Lipson, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and computing and information science at Cornell University, said in a statement.

Milli-motein is part of a family of devices being explored at size scales ranging from protein-based "nanoassemblers" to a version where the chain is as big as a person, according to Gershenfeld.

Knaian said that ultimately, a reconfigurable robot should be "small, cheap, durable and strong." He added that it is not possible to get all of those right now, but biology is the proof that it is possible.

Eventually, the team's work could lead to robotic systems that can be dynamically reconfigured to do many different jobs rather than repeating a fixed function.