New Particle Robots Swarm Together to Move Larger Objects

A new particle robot concept uses unique algorithms and swarm robots to affect big change from puny bots.

A new set of “particle robots” developed by researchers at MIT, Harvard, Columbia and Cornell can join forces to move large objects or complete other tasks that couldn’t be done by one robot alone.

As published in the journal Nature, researchers have developed a 6-inch diameter, circular robot that contains a small motor, a battery, a microcontroller and magnetic elements connected to its exterior surface. When activated in a group by an algorithm, a swarm of these particle robots can link together using their magnetic “arms” and move themselves in a unified manner creating a larger, more powerful mechanism.

Aside from the novelty of their design, these particle robots are also fascinating because of the way their collective action is propagated.

Inside each particle is a light sensor that takes a reading of the ambient light around it and assigns a value to the reading. A particle closest to a light source will generate a reading of 10 while a particle some distance away will generate a lower value. Using these values, each robot will expand or contract in correspondence to their reading and move either toward or away from the light source depending on the intent of the driving algorithm.

“We have small robot cells that are not so capable as individuals but can accomplish a lot as a group,” says Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. “The robot by itself is static, but when it connects with other robot particles […] the robot collective can explore the world and control more complex actions. With these ‘universal cells,’ the robot particles can achieve different shapes, global transformation, global motion, global behavior, and, as we have shown in our experiments, follow gradients of light. This is very powerful.”

For now, researchers will continue to develop algorithms that can explore the potential of these particle robots while also attempting to miniaturize them to microscopic scale where millions can work in series.