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Origami blossoms in a light-up robot garden

MIT has built a "garden" consisting of over 100 robots that fold up like origami, glow in changing colours, crawl and swim.

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

As if robots weren't already super-cool, MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab has built an entire garden out of robots to entice kids to get into programming -- particularly girls.

"Students can see their commands running in a physical environment, which tangibly links their coding efforts to the real world," said lead author Lindsay Sanneman. "It's meant to be a launchpad for schools to demonstrate basic concepts about algorithms and programming."

The garden has two functions: an aesthetically appealing enticement to children to learn about programming; and a showcase for the team's latest work in distributed computing. It consists of over 100 robots that can bloom like flowers, glow with LED lights and move around like robotic animals.

The whole system can be controlled with any tablet or Bluetooth-enabled device -- using either a "control by click" system, for which users click on individual flowers; or "control by code", wherein users can write their own commands. The system's 16 tiles are connected by Arduino microcontrollers and programmed via search algorithms.

"The garden tests distributed algorithms for over 100 distinct robots, which gives us a very large-scale platform for experimentation," said CSAIL Director and study co-author Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Sheep-bot (left) and duck-bots (right). Joseph DelPreto/CSAIL

"At the same time, we hope that it also helps introduce students to topics like graph theory and networking in a way that's both beautiful and engaging."

The garden has eight types of flowers -- including lilies, tulips and birds of paradise. These are embedded with printable motors that allow them to open and close; or colour-changing LEDs, which can be programmed to turn the garden into a rainbow of light. The "sheep" robots, which crawl around, were created with traditional print-and-fold origami techniques; while the swimming magnet-powered ducks are made of a material that self-folds when heated.

"Many elements of the garden can be made very quickly, including the pouch motors and the LED flowers," DelPreto said. "We're hoping that rapid fabrication techniques will continue to improve to the point that something like this could be easily built in a standard classroom."

The next step is enabling the garden to be controlled using multiple devices, rather than just one, so that children could work together to control the garden, as well as incorporating audio elements. The long term goal is to create a system that could be incorporated into a school curriculum.

"Computer science has so many real-world applications that a lot of kids don't see because they aren't exposed to them from an earlier age," Sanneman said. "That's why we think there's a lot of potential for tools like this."