Researchers at MIT are working on a project that could bring sci-fi fantasies to reality. But, then again, when aren’t they?
Nowadays, if you want something built, you take wood or other materials and build or cut it out of that. But, what if you could have a computer model of what you want, and have that thing magically appear out of a box of sand?
That is the very vision the brains at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory (DRL) at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory are pursuing. It involves a lot of programming and seemingly-simple twiddling, but it could change the way things are made with the same kind of promise that 3-D printing has people so excited about. The development is called “smart sand”.
From the MITNews:
At the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May — the world’s premier robotics conference — DRL researchers will present a paper describing algorithms that could enable such “smart sand.” They also describe experiments in which they tested the algorithms on somewhat larger particles — cubes about 10 millimeters to an edge, with rudimentary microprocessors inside and very unusual magnets on four of their sides.
Unlike many other approaches to reconfigurable robots, smart sand uses a subtractive method, akin to stone carving, rather than an additive method, akin to snapping LEGO blocks together. A heap of smart sand would be analogous to the rough block of stone that a sculptor begins with. The individual grains would pass messages back and forth and selectively attach to each other to form a three-dimensional object; the grains not necessary to build that object would simply fall away. When the object had served its purpose, it would be returned to the heap. Its constituent grains would detach from each other, becoming free to participate in the formation of a new shape.
Of course, ten-millimeter cubes is hardly what you would call “sand”, but the idea is to get the functionality and algorithms in place, then shrink the size of it over time.
“Take the core functionalities of their pebbles,” says [Robert] Wood, who directs Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory. “They have the ability to latch onto their neighbors; they have the ability to talk to their neighbors; they have the ability to do some computation. Those are all things that are certainly feasible to think about doing in smaller packages.”
“It would take quite a lot of engineering to do that, of course,” Wood cautions. “That’s a well-posed but very difficult set of engineering challenges that they could continue to address in the future.”
This video gives you an idea of the “subtractive” methods of building that the MIT folks are working on.