London, January 30 : Carnegie Mellon University researchers are working on swarms of robots that use electromagnetic forces to cling together, and assume different shapes.
Seth Goldstein, who is leading the project, has revealed that the main goal of his team is to create swarms of microscopic robots capable of morphing into virtually any form by clinging together. He, however, admits that it is still a distant prospect.
The researchers are using simulations to develop control strategies for futuristic shape-shifting robots, and are testing them on small groups of more primitive, pocket-sized machines.
They say that such prototype robots use electromagnetic forces to manoeuvre themselves, communicate, and even share power.
A set of wheeled robots with a ring of electromagnets around their edge has been shown to grab hold of one another. They could securely attach and roll around each other by switching their electromagnets on and off.
Since the robots' wheels were not powered, they had to rely entirely on their magnets to manoeuvre themselves around.
"These were the first mobile robots without any moving parts," New Scientist magazine quoted Goldstein as saying.
He revealed that the robots also used their electromagnets to share power, to communicate, and for simple sensing.
Given that magnetic forces are less efficient at smaller scales, the researchers have now started to experiment with electric forces instead. Their latest prototypes are box-shaped robots, whom they have named "cubes".
The robots have six plastic arms with star-shaped appendages at the end of each, and these stars have several flat aluminium electrodes. Electrodes on different stars are given opposing charges, which enables them to attract each other.
Experiments have shown that sending messages and power to other cubes over the same links is possible.
"Our hope is to assemble around 100 cubes to experiment with ideas," Goldstein says.
"I'll be done when we produce something that can pass a Turing test face-to-face. You won't know if you're shaking hands with me or a claytronics copy of me," he says.