A prototype of a new modular robot, with its innards exposed and its flywheel — which gives it the ability to move independently — pulled out.

A prototype of a new modular robot, with its innards exposed and its flywheel — which gives it the ability to move independently — pulled out.

Credit: Courtesy of M. Scott Brauer


Picture the following technological vision: "We want hundreds of cubes, scattered randomly across the floor, to be able to identify each other, coalesce, and autonomously transform into a chair, or a ladder, or a desk, on demand." This goal—as described by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's John Romanishin in a university press release—may sound like the stuff of science fiction. However, Romanishin, a research scientist in the university's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and his colleagues have taken an important step towards this objective with the creation of M-Blocks.

The idea of self-assembly has long entranced robotics experts, but has been challenged by significant hurdles. Scientists have toiled to solve a basic collection of requirements including mobility, power, software controls, physical connections, and reliability of aggregate structures. When Romanishin first proposed a concept for self-organizing modular robots as a student, his professors told him it was unachievable.

However, Romanishin's dream has recently become a reality. Prototype M-Blocks are simple cubes that, despite the lack of moving parts, are able to propel themselves by pushing or rolling across a surface. They can even climb on top of one another, move upside down, and jump in mid-air.

This incredible capability is made possible by the clever use of simple, low-tech solutions to a seemingly intractable problem. The scientists incorporated a flywheel within each cube, which provides angular momentum when braked, as well as surface magnets that allow cubes to connect to each other. "It's one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time," said CSAIL director Daniela Rus in the release. "We just needed a creative insight and somebody who was passionate enough to keep coming at it—despite being discouraged."

Motivated by their breakthrough, the MIT researchers are currently constructing an army of 100 blocks, as well as more sophisticated algorithms to direct their movements. Although still in a nascent stage, the future dream of a self-constructing, Minecraft-esque physical environment is within reach.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.