If you think the liquid android in Terminator 2-the one that reassembled itself after being smashed into tiny droplets-is centuries off, think again. Robots built from small, intelligent, interchangeable modules are already squirming their way off the drawing boards in labs around the world, including Mark Yim’s Modular Robotics Laboratory at the Palo Alto Research Center. A senior researcher at PARC, Yim has developed a bestiary of versatile “PolyBots,” proving for the first time that different groupings of identical modules can locomote like a snake, a spider, a lizard, a wheel, and more. To Yim, these itinerant prototypes are early steps toward Proteus-like machines that adapt to new environments-say, the surface of a remote planet-by altering not simply their behavior but their very anatomy.
Future modular robots could also help out closer to home, Yim predicts: “Make my bed, do the dishes, clean the house, change the oil in my car. That kind of thing would be very hard for a robot with a fixed shape, but if you have the ability to adapt and change your shape, that opens up a wide variety of tasks.” Technology Review senior editor Wade Roush visited Yim and his team and got a first-hand look as the early predecessors of such shape-changing machines crept, crawled and rolled around the laboratory.
A motor in the module, driven by the onboard computer, can swivel each of the hinge’s two halves in either direction, Yim says, flexing the device’s joint with his hands. As the snake grows before him, Yim explains that the modules are actually capable of snapping together on four sides, “so they can form a cross as well as a chain.” Small wires touch when two modules are joined-“That’s how a module sees who its neighbors are.”
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