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article imageFuture of robotics: Merging, morphing, mobile machines

By Tim Sandle     Sep 19, 2017 in Science
Brussels - In news that will interest technology firms developing robots, researchers have created self-reconfiguring modular robots. These devices can merge, split and self-heal while retaining full control of its sensors and motor functions.
The step forward in robotics comes from the Université libre de Bruxelles. The development is with self-reconfiguring modular robots. The robots have the capability to merge, split and even self-heal. At the same time sensory and motor function control is maintained. The study is seen as a stepping stone towards the production of robots capable of autonomously changing their size, shape and function to suit different tasks or in response to environmental changes.
The future is robotic, with robots set to be used on an increasing scale from construction, to design, and even with retail services. Most robots in operation work via a robotic nervous system. This process of control works with sensors and actuators; these are connected to a central processing unit. A limitation with this design concept is that the robotic nervous system is mapped according to the shape of the robot. This configuration is a limitation in terms of the flexibility of the machine. Future factories, for example, will require robots with greater adaptability.
The Belgian researchers took the view that adaptability can be improved by using modular robots. This means robots built from multiple units. When these units come together they form collective bodies. This is fine in theory, but with robotic nervous systems this would mean coordination and control of such modular robots would be constrained by low number of predefined shapes.
To overcome this, Professor Marco Dorigo and his research team have succeeded in designing modular robots that are capable of adapting their units to different shapes. This happens by the robot’s units splitting and merging to become new independent robotic entities.
Moreover, trials have shown that, through the use of artificial intelligence algorithms, the robots can autonomously choose the appropriate shapes and size according to data collected about the external environment or in response to a given task. Remarkably, the researchers have designed robotic nervous systems that are capable of splitting and merging in order to maintain sensorimotor control. It is also possible for the robots to self-heal. This occurs through the removal or replacement of malfunctioning parts.
The development in robotics is published in the journal Nature Communications, with the research study titled “Mergeable nervous systems for robots.”
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