These mind-melding robots can work autonomously, merge to operate as one and even self-heal by replacing malfunctioning pieces. Researchers at Université libre de Bruxelles developed this series of small robots that are controlled by a single brain and mergeable nervous system.
In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers explained how the system consists of a swarm of small units that work separately until they are connected to each other. When connected, they work as one unit, and the controlling nervous system can expand or shrink depending on the number of robots connected or separate.
“Since the swarm is made of many robots, if some of them break down, the others can continue to work,” lead author Marco Dorigo told Popular Science. This allows for the self-healing capability. If a unit stops functioning, other units can replace it. And when a swarm of the units connect, one acts as the brain to control functions – but if that unit stops working, another unit can also take over as brain control.
“The one that is getting the authority becomes the brain of the new robot,” he continued. “The one that is ceding authority to it becomes part of the body. In this way, you’re building a bigger nervous system than was available before.”
The benefit of such a design is that the robot doesn’t need to be created for a specific task. The small units can be arranged, connected and controlled to carry out a variety of different actions depending on what’s needed. They are also less fragile and can be produced in larger quantities.
“Our vision is that, in the future, robots will no longer be designed and built for a particular task,” the study reads. “Instead, we will design composable robotic units that give robots the flexibility to autonomously adapt their capabilities, shape and size to changing task requirements.”
Currently, the system needs to be told how to merge before it can act, and the team plans to improve this aspect of the design so that the units can learn to merge and rearrange on their own.