Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, are continuing to develop a robotic technology that can transform into a virtually infinite number of shapes. In fact, the breakthrough has led to some surprising spin-off projects, including research into aircraft control actuators and medical devices.
MIT first announced the caterpillar-size device last November after the original effort, which was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was completed. The original Programmable Matter project resulted in a device called a milli-motein, a name inspired by its millimeter-size components and a motorized design resembling proteins that fold themselves into complex shapes.
The technology could one day allow warfighters to design and build robotic systems on the fly to meet specific challenges—maneuvering through the space inside walls to gather reconnaissance information, for example. Now, the technology is being further developed in another DARPA project, the Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which seeks to improve the capability of robots to traverse tough terrain and to grasp or manipulate objects. “What our group has been doing is looking at how to apply our technologies for building structures from digital composite technology,” reports Ara Knaian, a visiting scientist at MIT, who helped design the unique electro-permanent motor that drives the milli-motein technology.
Fellow MIT researcher Kenneth Cheung is conducting follow-on research that could lead to structures with intriguing properties. “We believe we have a way to make the world’s strongest, lightest material in defense out of carbon fiber pieces—almost like LEGOs—so that you can design the shape that you want on the computer and put it together with these snap-together pieces for an incredibly strong structure that also has some flexibility in places where you want it. They’re combining that with some of these actuators to make structures that can bend and form to have improved mobility.”
Additionally, Knaian reports, the technology has led to some surprising spin offs. For example, he is working with Moog Incorporated, East Aurora, New York, to apply the motors to aircraft controls. “We’re working with their aircraft division on a couple of projects related to the electro-permanent motor. One project focuses on actuators for flight control surfaces and moving the horizontal stabilizers and other control surfaces of an airplane. It’s an inherently fail-safe motor. When the power is cut to the motor, it will hold the control surface steady rather than allowing it to flap around freely. It is preferable for the control surface to fail in a locked position. We’ve built some prototypes of that,” he reports.
Moreover, the team is exploring applications in medicine. The motors can be used in endoscopes, for example, to provide a precision steering capability. The MIT announcement compared the technology to a Swiss Army Knife and to the Transformer robots of cartoon and movie fame, but Knaian compares it to 3-D printing. “I would view this as the next step after 3-D printing. You could take a 3-D printer out into the field and make an object, but that object is static. And when you’re done with it, it’s garbage. You have to throw it away,” Knaian says.
The milli-motein technology, on the other hand, can be reformed for a variety of purposes, which would help lighten the load soldiers carry on the battlefield. “The idea is to build tools with multiple uses that can transform from one thing to another and that could maybe do so in unexpected ways,” Knaian explains. “If a new need is encountered in the field, people can download something that they want, just like you would download software. Of course, that’s a futuristic vision, but the idea is to see how close we can get to that.”
If faced with a specific challenge, such as an unmanned ground vehicle that needs to traverse terrain it was not designed for, future soldiers could design parts they need on the computer and use a combination of printable parts and a commercial-off-the-shelf toolkit to build new wheels or tracks for the vehicle. But those wheels and tracks could later take on another shape and serve another purpose.
Knaian does not entirely dismiss the possibility that the technology could eventually morph into planes, tanks or automobiles. “If you want to look into the far future where technology has significantly improved, maybe this is a progenitor of things like that, but we’re nowhere near that,” he says.
He recalls that the original project drew interest from Special Forces personnel. “Early on in the project, we met with some people from the Special Forces about building a segmented robot that could maneuver with low power. It would be useful for reconnaissance in situations where the object would need to move by itself for a long time, maybe open a hole in dry wall and then maneuver through the space in the walls,” Knaian explains.