A team from the University of Southern California has created robots that are able to alter their configuration depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves.

The team’s mission was to develop a robot that can perform reconnaissance missions, perform searches in urban and other environments and respond to the challenges and obstacles that arise.

The CONRO unit – short for configurable robots – consists of small electric motors, a computer chip, and an ‘active end’ that can move up and down. Special plugs on the active end enable the units to be joined together

The onboard computer chip directs the machine’s activities and they can receive and send instructions to other units via infrared transmitters.

The robots are said to be able to act autonomously or as a unified system. CONRO’s creators say it’s applications could be as varied as attending earthquakes and fires, or situations where it would be hazardous for humans. Their purpose would be to assemble themselves into implements that could carry water or medicine to trapped people.

The team recently succeeded in getting a snake of six modules to find and link to its own tail and roll forward. Another of the CONRO units forms a six-legged insect-like creature, which walks by moving three legs at a time.

Team leader Peter Will says that despite the developments the creation of truly ‘metamorphosing’ robots will require many improvements, including better chips that run on less power.

‘The robots must recognise the conditions that dictate a change in form, must determine the proper new form to assume, and be able to do so quickly and efficiently under confused real world conditions,’ said Will.