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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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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