Inspired by cell biology, European researchers have created the world’s first shape-shifting robot made of many modules, which could lead to new applications in fields ranging from medicine and space exploration to education and entertainment.
On display at IST 2004 in The Hague and being showcased on 17 November in Tokyo, the HYDRA project’s robots have broken new ground in robotics and artificial intelligence through a simple but highly effective design that allows the devices to configure themselves into almost any shape and perform a variety of functions. “We have shown that electronic artefacts can change not only their behaviour but also their shape during their lifetime, something that I don’t think most people believed was possible,” explains Henrik Hautop Lund, a professor at the Maersk Institute in Denmark and the coordinator of the HYDRA project, which was funded under the European Commission’s IST Programme.
Over the last three years the Maersk Institute, together with LEGO, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Zurich, developed two types of spherical modules, the ATRON and the HYDRON that can operate autonomously, communicate with each other and be programmed to take on virtually any shape and behaviour. The HYDRON was developed for use in fluids while the ATRON, which is the module being presented widely this week, was created for terrestrial use. “We based the design on the way biological cells interact, how they move, die and reconstruct themselves, and we emulated that in the modules, which are essentially building blocks for robotic devices that look very much like a string of atoms or cells when connected together,” Lund says. “These are the first robots of their kind, especially in terms of the simplicity of their design and their ability to change shape.”
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