MIT cube robots self-assemble with no external moving parts

MIT unveils M-Blocks, cube robots that self-assemble, in major modular robotics breakthrough.
By KRISTEN BUTLER,  |  Updated Oct. 4, 2013 at 2:47 PM
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Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled small, cube-shaped robots that can flip, jump, stack and assemble themselves into larger shapes with no exterior moving parts.

The robots, called M-Blocks, use an internal flywheel mechanism to move and stick together using magnets.

The scientists envision miniature "swarmbot" versions of the M-Blocks that self-assemble like the "liquid steel" cyborgs in the "Terminator" films.

When MIT senior John Romanishin proposed his modular robot design to his robotics professor Daniela Rus in 2011, she said, “that can’t be done.”

Two years later, Rus showed Hod Lipson, a robotics researcher at Cornell University, a video of prototype M-Blocks. Even after seeing them in action, he too said, "that can’t be done."

According to Gilpin, existing modular-robot systems are “statically stable,” meaning that “you can pause the motion at any point, and they’ll stay where they are.” MIT researchers were able to drastically simplify their robots’ design and eliminate moving parts by giving up on static stability.

“There’s a point in time when the cube is essentially flying through the air,” Gilpin says. “And you are depending on the magnets to bring it into alignment when it lands. That’s something that’s totally unique to this system.”

Romanishin -- now a research scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory -- Rus and Kyle Gilpin will present their new robots at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in November.

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