Self-propelled robotic cubes can form into structures


October 3, 2013

M-Blocks are able to roll, jump and join together (Photo: MIT)

M-Blocks are able to roll, jump and join together (Photo: MIT)

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Imagine if an army of completely flat-faced cubes could roll around and even jump on their own, joining with one another to form a variety of large-scale structures. Well, that's exactly what a team of robotics researchers at MIT are trying to turn into a reality – and they've already developed the cubes that could do it.

Known as M-Blocks, the devices were created by MIT's John Romanishin, Daniela Rus and Kyle Gilpin.

Along with electronics that allow them to orient themselves relative to one another, each cube also contains a motor-driven flywheel, that spins at speeds of up to 20,000 rpm. When that flywheel suddenly brakes, the transfered momentum sends the cube flying in the direction that the wheel was spinning. Because the cubes additionally have magnets on each of their faces, they stick to one another when they make contact, until the flywheel in one sends it on its way again.

In order to make sure that the magnets of any two cubes meet north-pole-to-south-pole, the magnets themselves are cylindrical, and mounted in such a way that they can roll in place. If the magnets on two cubes are brought together north-to-north or south-to-south, the resulting repellant force will cause them to turn until their north and south poles are facing one another – at which point they'll join together.

The inner workings of an M-Block (Photo: M. Scott Brauer)

In their current prototype form, the M-Blocks can roll across the ground, jump into the air, climb over each other, and even move while suspended upside-down.

The researchers are now creating a group of 100 of the cubes, and plan on making more. "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," Romanishin states in a press release.

It is hoped that eventually, swarms of their descendants could be deployed to perform services such as repairing buildings or bridges at disaster sites, performing reconnaissance in hazardous environments, or forming into scaffolding at construction sites. At that point in their development, some M-Blocks might be equipped with specialized features, such as cameras, battery packs, lights or sensors.

In the meantime, you can see some of the current batch working together in the video below.

Source: MIT

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Anyone remember that guy who used to spam usenet groups with this idea in the 90's? "Amazing shapeshifting" somethingorothers. Was always just around the corner. Wonder if he's part of the team :)


This is Blocks World with thirty plus years of hardware & software improvements. The original massive AI system only ever consumed massive amounts of federal money. The total over ten years was about $100 million. All it proved was that a massive approach to robotics & AI was massively wrong. This however, suggests progress. Small devices, or software components, can combine to express "emergent behaviour" in ways that large systems can not accomplish.


Imbed littleBits technology ( into M-Blocks and create physically functional AND electronically functional transforming structures.


"And this,Class, is how the aliens built the pyramids!"


Somebody call SG1. The replicators are coming.

David Leithauser
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