Piece by piece – the robots that build themselves

Most of us don’t encounter them very often, but robots are all around us, in factories and warehouses, hospitals, and flying in the skies above us. If you’re very lucky, you might even have a robot in your own home — perhaps zipping around doing the hoovering. But all these examples, and most robots we use today, were designed to do just one job. They are extremely efficient at what they do, but they are usually limited to one or a few similar tasks.

One type of robot is quite different. Modular robots are built up from many smaller, basic building blocks, like bricks. These bricks can be assembled in many different ways to achieve different functions, so modular robots can perform a much larger selection of jobs.

This kind of modular design is also very common in nature – from the trillions of cells that work together to make up your body, to the segments of a millipede.

But to make it all work, the modules must share a set of standards. If you tried to combine two different brands of toy brick, you would probably find the blocks don’t fit together properly, making your building unstable. And it is just the same for robots. The modules of a robot must all work using the same underlying code, have the same connectors, and so on.

Another challenge is that to be useful in a variety of situations the modules need to be quite small, but each module also needs to fit in a lot of hardware, such as power, communication, sensing, and movement capabilities.

Some assembly NOT required

Some modular robots have another skill – they can rearrange their own configuration by taking themselves apart and putting themselves back together again, without any help from humans.

This skill can be extremely useful because it means a robot can change its function, replace broken modules or upgrade its capabilities with new modules when they become available. But designing the software to control these robots as they build and rebuild themselves is very complicated. Each module must be perfectly in-sync with the other modules or the whole thing will fail!

Roboticists must choose between two main strategies – programme the whole robot centrally or give each module the programming to co-ordinate with its neighbours automatically. Each has its own benefits and challenges.

Into the danger zone

Because they are extremely reconfigurable, modular robots could be well suited to any situation where adaptability is key. For example, in manufacturing, modular robots could be reconfigured to quickly shift to making a different kind of product. This might be particularly useful for small companies that manufacture many different products in small batches.

Modular robots can also be useful for exploring unknown or unpredictable environments, such as disaster zones or other planets, where they can be reconfigured in response to conditions on the ground.

Research into modular reconfigurable robotics is advancing very fast and nobody really knows what the future might hold. Some scientists believe that modular robots will eventually be made that are small enough to enter the human body to monitor health or perform minor surgery. One day they might even form intelligent, self-reconfiguring materials.

The School Robot Competition 2020 is supported by Sheffield Robotics, a multi-disciplinary research group that are working on modular robotics for a variety of applications including disaster response, infrastructure repair and maintenance, and manufacturing.

Download the modular reconfigurable robots fact-sheet for your class here.