Harvard University's Self-Organizing Systems Research group has developed a "large-scale robot collective" that can self-assemble into different shapes.
The system is based on a subtractive approach, instead of the additive approaches to autonomous self-assembly robotics.
In the Harvard model, 725 Kilobot robots begin in a tight grid assembly, and then each robot decides if it is part of the desired shape that has been entered into the system; robots that are not a part of the desired shape then disperse to the edge of the coordinate system, leaving only the desired shape remaining. The robots accomplish their goal using only a single overhead light to guide their motion while only communicating with other robots up to three body lengths away, which means a given robot is never communicating with more than 36 other robots at a time. The robots measure the distance from one another based on the wireless signal's strength and are accurate to the millimeter.
The Harvard researchers note the subtractive method of self-assembly offers several advantages, such as requiring a low level of motion precision, which becomes useful as more robots are added to a swarm.
They say a self-disassembly algorithm can achieve a wide class of shapes with high efficiency and accuracy, making it a good candidate for shape formation in modular robots and programmable materials.
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