Unit robots

Swarm robots could shapeshift for any occasion

Image credit: IRIDIA LAB ULB

Researchers at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) have created a swarm of autonomous robots that can merge, split and self-heal, paving the way to a future of robots that can change their form and function as necessary.

Today, most autonomous robots are controlled by robotic “nervous systems”, in which sensors and actuators – like sensory organs and muscles – are connected to a central “brain”, which uses the information collected to decide on appropriate actions.

In most cases, these systems are restrained by the shape of the robot’s body.

“The nervous systems of existing robots are currently strictly mapped to their morphologies – even more strictly than biological nervous systems are mapped to body morphology in animals,” the ULB researchers wrote in Nature Communications.

Such robots could be made more adaptable, however, if the robots were able to change their form. While fluidly morphing robots such as the liquid metal T-1000 are still the stuff of science fiction, roboticists could achieve greater adaptability through the use of modular robots.

Modular robots are made up of smaller constituent robots which can merge together to form different bodies. The abilities of previous modular robots have been constrained by the limited number of shapes that the constituent robots can form between themselves, and their subsequent lack of full sensorimotor control.

Now, researchers from ULB’s Artificial and Swarm Intelligence (IRIDIA) Laboratory have created modular robots capable of autonomously splitting and merging to recreate their bodies in many new forms, all while retaining full sensorimotor control. The researchers demonstrated their system with ten units which can physically connect to one another, although they believe that the system could be easily scaled up to include more units.

“Our control paradigm enables robots to exhibit properties that go beyond those of any existing machine or of any biological organism,” the authors reported.

“The robots we present can merge to form larger bodies with a single centralised controller, split into separate bodies with independent controllers, and self-heal by removing or replacing malfunctioning body parts.”

According to the researchers, the swarm is even capable of self-healing by working together to remove the faulty brain unit of a constituent robot.

In the future, the authors suggest, robots would no longer have to be designed and built for a particular task, and instead could form themselves from unit robots in order to adapt to almost any situation imaginable.


“Our vision is that, in the future, robots will no longer be designed and built for a particular task. Instead, we will design composable robotic units that give robots the flexibility to autonomously adapt their capabilities, shape and size to changing task requirements,” the authors conclude.

The rapidly growing field of swarm robotics – whereby simple, miniaturised unit robots communicate and collaborate with one another to complete tasks with greater flexibility than individual robots – has potential applications in medicine (whereby swarms of microscopic robots could operate within a human body), disaster rescue, agriculture and – more controversially – in defence.

Swarms of robots could be used in orbit around Earth to clear up space junk or to study the Earth’s thermosphere from the ISS, and the US Navy has demonstrated the capability of a collective of unmanned boats to “swarm” hostile vessels.

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