As sensors, computers, actuators, and batteries decrease in size and increase in efficiency, it becomes possible to make robots much smaller without sacrificing a whole lot of capability. There’s a lower limit on usefulness, however, if you’re making a robot that needs to interact with humans or human-scale objects. You can continue to leverage shrinking components if you make robots that are modular: in other words, big robots that are made up of lots of little robots.
In some ways, it’s more complicated to do this, because if one robot is complicated, n robots tend to be complicatedn. If you can get all of the communication and coordination figured out, though, a modular system offers tons of advantages: robots that come in any size you want, any configuration you want, and that are exceptionally easy to repair and reconfigure on the fly.
MIT’s ChainFORM is an interesting take on this idea: it’s an evolution of last year’s LineFORM multifunctional snake robot that introduces modularity to the system, letting you tear of a strip of exactly how much robot you need, and then reconfigure it to do all kinds of things.
MIT Media Lab calls ChainFORM a “shape changing interface,” because it comes from their Tangible Media Group, but if it came from a robotics group, it would be called a “poke-able modular snake robot with blinky lights.” Each ChainFORM module includes touch detection on multiple surfaces, angular detection, blinky lights, and motor actuation via a single servo motor. The trickiest bit is the communication architecture: MIT had to invent something that can automatically determine how many modules there are, and how the modules are connected to each other, while preserving the capability for real-time input and output.
Read the source article at Communications of the ACM.