Researchers at Cornell University are bringing science fiction closer to reality. They have developed a self-replicating robot consists of independent motorized blocks. Their work has implications for space exploration and "lights-out" automated factories.
 


Researchers at Cornell have developed a self-replicating robot that consists of independent motorized blocks.

While researching an article on robotics, I stumbled across some work being done at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) that reminded me of one of my favorite movies, the 1977 sci-fi thriller Demon Seed.

The film is about a supercomputer, Proteus, that can think like a human being. Long story short, Proteus decides it’s not enough to merely think like a person, it wants to be a person. Along the way, Proteus builds a robot to do its bidding. The robot consists of geometric blocks that can move at angles to each other and combine themselves in various ways depending what needs to be done.

Researchers at the Computational Science Laboratory at Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering have developed a self-replicating modular robot that looks and moves remarkably like the robot in the movie. The robot consists of independent motorized blocks. The modules have electromagnets that selectively weaken and strengthen connections, determining where the structure breaks and joins. Each module is a 10-centimeter cube, split into two halves along a diagonal plane. One half of the cube can swivel relative to the other half in increments of 120 degrees, each time cycling three faces of the cube. Connected cubes can both form and change into arbitrary arrangements. The cubes are powered through the baseplate and transfer data and power through their faces. The control of the machine is distributed among the modules: A microcontroller in each module executes a motion schedule governed by time and contact events.

Led by postdoctoral research associate Viktor Zykov, the team programmed a four-module robot to pick-up additional modules from two “feeding” locations and assemble them into copies of itself. The robot could copy itself in 2.5 minutes. You can watch a video of the robot in action, click here.

Neat, you say, but what’s that got to do with assembly? Zykov explains: “Self-reproduction is the ultimate form of self-repair. Robotic systems are becoming more complex, and in some cases like space exploration, they need to sustain operation for long periods of time without human assistance. If you send a robot to Mars, for example, and it breaks, there is little you can do. But if instead of sending a fixed robot, you send a robot with a supply of modules, then that robot may be able to self-repair and even make more and possibly different robots if the mission needs change unexpectedly.”

At the moment, Zykov’s robots are not as useful as, say, a six-axis robot designed for welding. Nevertheless, says Zykov, it would be fairly easy to add other modules to his self-replicating robot, such as a module with a gripper, a camera or a cargo bay.

Check it out. And if the PC on your desktop suddenly asks you for a blood sample, don’t do it!