Eleven autonomous robots form a plier-like shape. Photo: Marco Dorigo and Nithin Mathews

Researchers in Brussels have designed a way for robots to merge their control systems with one another to create a larger robot. The new technology allows a robot to split into several smaller units and then merge again in different shapes and configurations.

Why it matters: Robots will eventually move out of the predictable environments of manufacturing floors and into changing worlds that will require them to adapt. That's the goal of research into autonomous, modular robots like these.

Imagine constructing a house with robots. You'd need larger machines to do the heavy lifting and smaller bots to maneuver within tight spaces in the construction process. But buying robots of several shapes, sizes and functions would quickly drive up costs. Marco Dorigo, the study's lead researcher, sees a future in which one robot could do all of the jobs: splitting into small bodies to do the little tasks and returning to full-size to do the big ones.

How it works: The new technology demonstrated that it is not the robots themselves but the robotic nervous systems that govern them. Dorigo and his colleagues have designed control systems that can communicate with one another when there is physical contact between the smaller robots. So, while the robots can act alone, they can also become a united body controlled by a single "brain" when they're attached.

What's new:

  • Existing technology either allows for a group of robots to be controlled with a central computer system or as independent entities.
  • In the first case, if the computer shuts down, so do all of the robots, but, in the second case, "there is no one in charge," Dorigo said.
  • Both systems pose problems, and the researchers tried to combine the advantages of both.
  • Their robots are autonomous but have the ability, when physical contact is established, to centralize control. Still, if one of the smaller robots breaks down, all of the others can keep doing their jobs.

What's next: Figure out how to make the robots talk to each other without physical contact, Dorigo told Axios. Such a technology might be especially useful for self-driving cars and allow the cars to put their "brains" together to enhance safety and efficiency on the road, he said.

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