MNS robots can self-heal if one becomes damaged or malfunctions. (Image credit Nature Communications)


All references to ‘Skynet’ aside, researchers from the University Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels have developed robots that can function on their own or come together to form a mergeable nervous system, complete with a single hive-like mind and the ability to heal itself. They also have the ability to arrange themselves into different configurations to perform different tasks and optimal performance in different environments.


This was no simple feat as scientists have already developed several different robotic platforms where they can work together but not at a level of efficiency they would like. For instance, some robots can be programmed using information of their surroundings and then organize themselves to solve a problem, which isn’t that easy to do. Another method is to connect a robotic swarm together using a central command, or brain center to control each individual robot, but this method can be disastrous if the central command malfunctions.



This new system bridges those two methods, calling the new capability a ‘Mergeable Nervous System for Robots,' a sort of modular platform with self-healing capabilities- meaning if one robot becomes damaged or malfunctions it is either repaired by the other robots or discarded completely. When together, control of the robots shifts to a single unit, controlling everything including shape and job function. If that leader bot malfunctions, the leadership position shifts over to another who takes control of the group and continues to carry out that particular job function.


The mergeable nervous system concept relies on sensors for sending and receiving messages to perform job functions. (Image credit Nature Communications)


Each MNS robot is built in a sandwich-like fashion with the base module outfitted with both wheels and tracks (AKA Treels) and a series of sensors (3D accelerometer, gyroscope, IR, RFID, etc.) used for navigation and movement. Stacked on top of that layer is an inter-robot connection module that allows the robots to connect to one another while another utility module acts as a magnetic coupler, attracting other metal objects. On top of that is the range & bearing communications module, allowing each robot to connect wirelessly while another module acts as a rotating scanner for long-range detection. On top sits the brain that controls it all, which features an ARM 11 processor, Bluetooth, WiFi and a pair of cameras.


Cram all of those components together and you get the MNS platform, which uses a Linux-based OS to get them up and running. Of course, these robots are still a work in progress- meaning you won’t see them working on job sites or in hazardous environments anytime soon but the researchers are hoping to develop robots with flexible appendages that can function in three dimensions using the same technology.


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