Robots can be configured to perform a wide range of tasks from vacuuming floors to working with explosives. However, you’d be hard-pressed in trying to reconfigure a Northrop Grumman MarkV-A1 bomb handling robot to replace an iRobot Roomba (even though it would be an interesting show-piece at parties). That notion might become a thing of the past as MIT has developed a reconfigurable robot that can shape-shift to become almost anything. The tiny caterpillar-like robot was conceived and developed by Neil Gershenfeld, from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, along with electrical engineer Ara Knaian and associate Kenneth Cheung. It’s known as a Milli-Motein (because of its millimeter sized components and a motorized representation of a protein), and it was designed using a type of motor invented by the team of researchers. Miniscule in size, but none the less powerful, it can retain its position while power is turned off.
Called an electropermanent motor, the new design uses two permanent magnets paired with two electro magnets arraigned in a circle with one of the permanent magnets being more powerful than the other, which either cancels or adds to their magnetic fields depending on the direction the switchable field points. The motors are mounted in a steel ring housing, which forms a module connected to one another and can twist left, right or straight to form shapes depending on what direction the module is programmed(much like the way protein does). The robots conception was based on the idea of programmable matter, which has the ability to change its properties depending on the programming it receives. This is much like biological proteins that configure themselves into extremely complex shapes based on their coding. Eventually, the team hopes to evolve their programmable matter robot beyond a miniature 5-segmented machine into a more complex systems, like transform into anything from coffee cups to electric motors.