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Video: Robotic Cubes Self-Assemble

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Rob Spiegel
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Cool robot parts
Rob Spiegel   10/18/2013 12:11:25 PM
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Interesting new technology, Ann. While this robotic movement now seems raw, in time it may offer a way to control the movement of robots. It will be interesting to see how this technology plays going forward.

Charles Murray
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Re: Cool robot parts
Charles Murray   10/18/2013 5:49:40 PM
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This is amazing. Isn't this a rudimentary form of what the transformers do in the Transformer movies?

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Cool robot parts
Rob Spiegel   10/19/2013 5:50:51 PM
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That's a great observation, Chuck. Here's an example of life imitates art. I wonder if that was part of the idea behind this concept. Either way, it's nice to see a new take on robotic movement and control. 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Cool robot parts
Ann R. Thryft   10/21/2013 1:11:33 PM
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Well, yes and no, Chuck. Transformers re-configure themselves. These cubes self-assemble first and then reconfigure themselves. In robotics, these are considered different problems to solve, mechanically and algorithmically.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Cool robot parts
Elizabeth M   10/21/2013 4:16:42 AM
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I read about these on the MIT website...great that you wrote about them, Ann. These self-assembly robots are really interesting and quite versatile. As Rob points out, the movement may seem primitive now, but the fact that they can move and do these things on their own is a great step forward for robotics.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Cool robot parts
Ann R. Thryft   10/22/2013 5:15:11 PM
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Elizabeth, isn't this fun? I thin k Jim's suggestion for how magnetic connections can be amplified with other types is interesting.



Elizabeth M
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Re: Cool robot parts
Elizabeth M   10/23/2013 4:57:34 AM
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I agree with you about JimT's suggestion, Ann...it's a good one, Jim. Why should these self-assembly robots be mutually exclusive? Magnetic connections would be a great way to connect them.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Cool robot parts
Ann R. Thryft   10/23/2013 12:04:30 PM
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Elizabeth, Jim's description combined magnetic and pinion connections, in a 2-step connection process. Unless I misunderstood what he wrote. Right, Jim?

Elizabeth M
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Re: Cool robot parts
Elizabeth M   10/24/2013 5:03:59 AM
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Ah, yes, sorry about the misunderstanding there. I didn't read the whole thread and missed that part. Just now went back and read over the comments and I see what he means. Still would be a good idea!

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Cool robot parts
Ann R. Thryft   10/25/2013 1:21:03 PM
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I agree, Elizabeth. I'm glad you brought it up because the whole concept of what could work as a secondary, stronger connection method is an interesting design--and manufacturing--problem. Pinions might be too complex and expensive, and at much smaller dimensions probably wouldn't work at all.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Cool robot parts
Ann R. Thryft   10/21/2013 1:09:46 PM
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I agree Rob: the technology is very simple-looking, somewhat like a child's blocks. But that apparent simplicity masks a lot of complexity inside each cube. The smoothness of movement itself isn't the point: it's the accuracy that counts.



Rob Spiegel
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Re: Cool robot parts
Rob Spiegel   10/21/2013 4:10:19 PM
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This could be an odd little breakthrough, Ann. While it looks toy-like, the idea of parts coalescing could be the beginning of new robotic applications.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Cool robot parts
Ann R. Thryft   10/22/2013 5:17:07 PM
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I think you're right, Rob. And this particular R&D team is quite talented and persistent.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Cool robot parts
Rob Spiegel   10/22/2013 7:20:29 PM
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Ann, then it will certainly be interesting to see what the team comes up with next. While the cubes show a new take on movement and control, the next step may be a practical application. Perhaps integrated drive reassembly as a plant shifts from one product to the next.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Cool robot parts
Ann R. Thryft   10/23/2013 11:53:33 AM
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Rob, the researchers say in the press release that they hope to get the module size down a lot smaller, as is typical in modular robotics for self-assembly, as we discussed here:
http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=261138

Greg M. Jung
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Imaginative
Greg M. Jung   10/19/2013 10:21:15 PM
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Nice job to the MIT team.  Not only did they take a very different and innovative approach to a new robotics idea, but they also came up with very creative ways to solve the new challenges they faced.  Good job thinking outside of the 'cube'.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Imaginative
Ann R. Thryft   10/21/2013 1:11:50 PM
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Thanks, Greg, for that play on words! It gave me a chuckle.

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Instant bridge in a natural disaster
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   10/21/2013 10:51:04 PM
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That is fascinating.  Imagine the future where they might air-drop several thousand of these over an earthquake site, and watch them autonomously build a bridge over rushing flood water. I didn't catch any details on the strength of the elements-to-element bond, in that type of scenario where overall group strength, as a finished colony of blocks into a single structure, would be critical.

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: Instant bridge in a natural disaster
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   10/21/2013 11:00:26 PM
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Of course, economical price is less important for emergency, disaster & recovery, but to truly become commercially viable, each block cost will have to be "reasonably" priced.  Considering that in its present configuration that each block contains a flywheel, brake, brushless motor, PCB with controller, modem and a battery, they are still quite costly from a pure BOM standpoint, but certainly low-priced compared to other robots today.  Maybe if 1,000's were used to collectively "build a bridge" as speculated, there could be some advancement in the way they share components as a group.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Instant bridge in a natural disaster
Ann R. Thryft   10/22/2013 10:58:58 AM
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Jim, the bonds are magnetic, so they're not all that strong. This is a proof of concept, barely even a prototype. Notice how the researchers say that bridge repair and structures built with them would be temporary. I'm really interested to see what other means of fastening/connecting can be applied.



JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: Instant bridge in a natural disaster
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   10/22/2013 1:20:37 PM
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Right – only a PoC, but a very well-engineered and demonstrated PoC. I can visualize the magnets mounted on pinion-driven brackets, and after initial magnetic connection, a pinion drive physically engaged the magnetic pins into recess on the mating block. Lots of very cool potential on this idea, as autonomous building blocks.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Instant bridge in a natural disaster
Ann R. Thryft   10/22/2013 4:58:35 PM
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Jim, interesting point about cost in your earlier post. One thing that will affect cost is whether all of the cubes are identical, so can take advantage of economies of scale in production, or some of them have specialized functions, which will of course obviate same. This basic and simple difference is a major point in robotic self-assemby.

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: Instant bridge in a natural disaster
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   10/22/2013 10:28:14 PM
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I agree, and I think it would be 'key' that all blocks be identical; ubiquitously interchangeable like Lego Blocks, all the same size.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Instant bridge in a natural disaster
Ann R. Thryft   10/23/2013 12:05:05 PM
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Jim, that identical-cube scenario is called a homogeneous architecture, which does have the advantage of interchangeable cubes that are easily replaced in a structure, as we discussed in this feature article on self-assembled devices: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=261138 But the researchers say that they do envision "special-purpose cubes, containing cameras, or lights, or battery packs, or other equipment, which the mobile cubes could transport." This is a heterogeneous architecture, which gives the structure, or robot, built with such modules much more potential functions and capabilities.

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: Instant bridge in a natural disaster
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   10/23/2013 2:25:44 PM
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OK, point taken.  SO, thinking about it from a product design perspective you still benefit from economy of scale by designing the basic cube package with void space areas that can house the special features you mention on enhanced cubes.  Like adding bells & whistles option to a car; the base model remains the same.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Instant bridge in a natural disaster
Ann R. Thryft   10/23/2013 7:03:36 PM
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Jim, after writing about sophisticated optimization software I saw demo'ed at the Altair conference, I'm even more acutely aware of how much the smallest changes can make in efficiency and manufacturability of a design, not to mention cost. So I'm not at all sure that adding extra volume to each cube that's only going to be used in only a few of them would be a good idea from a cost and price standpoint of manufacturing thousands or more. That's not done in any other high-volume product; I doubt it would be in robots. The economies of scale you seem to be thinking of are usually applicable to zillions of semiconductor chips or millions of very simple consumer products. Economies of scale don't work the same in different types of product designs.

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