The group’s work was inspired by the fact that all the world's living things are built out of combinations of just 20 amino acids. Project leader Prof Neil Gershenfeld is aiming to mimic this by creating a kit of just 20 fundamental parts that he claims could ultimately be used to assemble all of the different technological products in the world
Gershenfeld’s team has previously shown that structures assembled from many small, identical subunits can have numerous mechanical properties. Next, they demonstrated that a combination of rigid and flexible part types can be used to create morphing airplane wings, a longstanding goal in aerospace engineering.
The latest work, which was presented at the International Conference on Manipulation, Automation and Robotics at Small Scales (MARSS) in Helsinki, Finland, adds components for movement and logic.
At the heart of the technology is a set of five millimetre-scale components, all of which can be attached to each other by a standard connector. These parts include the previous rigid and flexible types, along with electromagnetic parts, a coil, and a magnet.
Using this simple kit of tiny parts, MIT graduate student Will Langford assembled them into a novel kind of motor that moves an appendage in discrete mechanical steps, which can be used to turn a gear wheel, and a mobile form of the motor that turns those steps into locomotion.
These parts could also be assembled into hands for gripping, or legs for walking, as needed for a particular task, and then later reassembled as those needs change. Gershenfeld refers to them as "digital materials," discrete parts that can be reversibly joined, forming a kind of functional micro-LEGO.
The new system is a significant step toward creating a standardised kit of parts that could be used to assemble robots with specific capabilities adapted to a particular task or set of tasks. Such purpose-built robots could then be disassembled and reassembled as needed in a variety of forms, without the need to design and manufacture new robots from scratch for each application.
To build in the "brains," Langford has added part types that contain millimetre-sized integrated circuits, along with a few other part types to take care of connecting electrical signals in three dimensions.
Langford has also developed a machine that automates the assembly of these structures. Rather like a cross between a 3D printer and the pick-and-place machines that manufacture electronic circuits, the system can produce complete robotic systems directly from digital designs. Gershenfeld said the ultimate goal is "making an assembler that can assemble itself out of the parts that it's assembling."