Most robots today are designed for a single specialized task — or at least a single type of task. A 3D printer, for example, can really only do 3D-printing. A pick-and-place robot may look very similar to a 3D printer, but would actually require substantial modification to work as such. That is, ultimately, an impractical way to approach a problem, and is like owning a computer that could only run spreadsheet software. To overcome that single-purpose nature of robotics, MIT researchers have developed simple “particle robots” that can group together to accomplish tasks.
Each particle robot is, by itself, extremely basic and incapable of performing any job on its own. It’s a simple disc-shaped design that is only able to expand and contract. But when many particle robots merge together to form a group, they can coordinate that expansion and contraction to achieve locomotion. Notably, there is no direct communication between individual particle robots. In MIT’s demonstration, they simply use light sensors to move towards a light bulb. Each unit monitors the light intensity, and broadcasts the readings out to the whole group. The other units in the group receive those broadcasts from all of their neighbors, and use the information to coordinate movement.
If this idea of simple units working together to achieve a goal without any supervised coordination sounds familiar, it’s because that’s very similar to the way biological cells work. Each cell in your body is very simple, but they’re able to work together to perform very complex jobs. That is a big factor contributing to why our bodies are so resilient. Any individual cell can be damaged or killed, but the group continues to function. MIT’s particle robots would have that same advantage. The light-following demonstration may seem simple, but individual biological cells are also simple. The potential is in how they act as a group, and at nanotech scales these would have a lot of potential.