A new robot decides how and when to transform to get the job done

The bot uses magnets to link its parts together in different forms

shapeshifting robot

MACHINE METAMORPHOSIS  This shapeshifter robot can morph into shapes that resemble a car, snake or other forms, depending on the bot’s assigned task and work environment. 

T. Tosun

A robot made of several smaller robotic pieces can autonomously transform its body into shapes best suited for a particular task. 

The bot primarily consists of wheeled, cubic “modules” that link up with one another using magnets, forming a small assortment of body types reminiscent of cars or snakes. The brains of the operation reside in a specialized module equipped with cameras and a small computer to map the robot’s environment, plan its routes and control the other modules’ configuration via Wi-Fi.

Unlike other robot conglomerates, this bot can explore unfamiliar environments without human direction, and decide for itself when and how to change its shape to complete assignments (SN Online: 9/12/17). Such flexible, self-sufficient machinery, described online October 31 in Science Robotics, could help with search-and-rescue efforts or cleanup around the house.

Mechanical engineer and roboticist Tarik Tosun, who did this research while at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues tested the robot’s versatility in several lab experiments. While collecting garbage from around a cluttered area, the car-shaped robot rearranged its modules to build a trunklike appendage, and used it to retrieve litter from a narrow gap between two trash cans.

In other experiments, the robot transformed into a snakelike bot that wriggled up a flight of stairs, as well as a robotic arm that reached up to stick a stamp on the side of a package. A version of the robot programmed with a larger repertoire of body types could operate in a wider range of environments.

ROBOTIC POSTMAN  In a lab experiment, a new shapeshifter robot changed from a machine designed to roll across flat ground into a snakelike bot that could climb stairs to complete its mission of dropping a circuit board into a mailbox.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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