Super hero Mister Fantastic could change shape to slip under a door. Coming soon: real shape-shifting robots.
SOUND: (hotrod motor revving, loud crash, falling metal, tinkling glass)
Robots are usually designed to perform one task very well: assembling parts in a factory&vacuuming the living room. But ask them to perform another task -- or deal with an unanticipated change in their environment -- and you're asking for trouble.
On the other hand, self-configurable robots -- like the kind MIT engineer Daniela Rus is working on -- can reshape themselves as their task or environment changes. A walking robot used for search-and-rescue would become snake-like to slither through small spaces in a collapsed building. A rolling robot exploring the surface of mars would flow like water over a vertical drop or "flow" uphill onto a rock ledge. Says Rus:
Rus: "The robot could grow a third hand, or a second head or it could become an alligator."
Of course, it's got to do all this without falling to pieces while shape-shifting, or getting irreversibly stuck while moving from place to place.
Plenty of work lies ahead before Rus's creations can slip under a door like Marvel Comics' Mister Fantastic. But when it comes to robots adapting to unanticipated changes in the environment, the solution seems to lie in getting bent out of shape. I'm Eric Phillips.
"Imagine That!" covers projects funded in part by the U. S. government's National Science Foundation. Federally supported research -- brought to you by you! Learn more at nsf.gov.