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Scientists develop shape-shifting 'particle robots' with a children's toy

Big Hero 6, eat your heart out.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology via YouTube

Inspirational author and activist Helen Keller once said "alone we can do so little; together we can do so much" but she likely never have imagined that humble quote would be the perfect summation of a new "particle robotics system" developed by US researchers.

A team of engineers from MIT, Columbia University, Harvard University and Cornell University, looked to biological organisms and human cells for inspiration, developing a "particle robot" made up of smaller, individual robots that can perform complex functions together as a whole -- such as being able to push and pull each other in a particular direction.

The research, published in Nature on March 20, details these individual "particles" that alone are unable to move around, but can be coupled together to perform more complex functions.

"We have small robot cells that are not so capable as individuals but can accomplish a lot as a group," said Daniela Rus, an author on the new paper, in a press release.

Each robot is made up of rudimentary parts: a battery, a motor, light sensors, a microcontroller and a component that allows it to send and receive signals. That technical machinery is topped by a "Hoberman Flight Ring" -- a children's toy that can expand and contract.

The rhythm of expansion and contraction helps the robot move in a certain direction -- and the research team showed that their system could respond to a light source and move through obstacles. Each particle can detect light intensity, which in turn corresponds to a pre-computed timing that tells the robot when to expand and contract. Eventually, the pulsating locomotion drags the entire unit toward the light.

"The particles closer to the light source experience brighter light and thus start their cycle earlier," said Shuguang Li, co-first author of the paper, in a release.

The expanding and contracting robots are able to move around by coordinating their individual movements (10x speed).

Massachusetts Institute of Technology via YouTube

If you've ever seen Disney's Big Hero 6, you'll be familiar with the idea of the microbots -- swarming, tiny robots that can link together in any arrangement you desire -- built by the film's protagonist, Hiro (if you're not familiar with Big Hero 6, then stop reading, watch it and come back). The fluorescent green and yellow robots built here resemble a really (really!) early version of that same concept -- and without the mind control, of course.

You can see the machines in action below:      

When you look at the types of robots being developed by Boston Dynamics, you can see they are made up of hundreds of individually complex parts that come together to perform their function. Spot Mini, Boston Dynamics' robo-dog, is one of its most advanced robots and can even twerk -- but its not quite adaptable if something goes wrong. If a leg were to malfunction, that would render Spot Mini immobile.

The design here is like the antithesis to Boston Dynamics' robot manufacturing. Each piece is rather simple on its own, but by running tests with a up to 24 interconnecting particles, the team demonstrated these simple robots were able to fluidly navigate toward a light source and push objects around.

In addition, with virtual simulations of up to 100,000 particles moving together, the team showed that the system would continue to work even if it lost up to 20 percent of the individual robot particles.

Such a system may one day be able to be built from even smaller robot particles down to the nano-scale, which would sharply bring the idea of the Big Hero 6 microbots into focus. For now, the team will continue to explore at the centimeter-scale, and also see if different types of particle robots may perform better.