The typical robot you’ll find building cars or exploring Mars may look nothing like a human, but they share a crucial trait with us and pretty much all other biological life: Robots have got their one and only body, and they can’t suddenly change it to solve the latest task.

But there’s no reason for robots to be stuck one way forever, especially not when they can combine and separate with other robots to form new, more powerful forms. Shows like Voltron and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers have been trying to tell us this for decades, but it’s only now that roboticists are bringing these ideas into the real world.

A team of researchers from several institutions across Europe published their work in Tuesday’s Nature Communications. While each robot retains its own autonomous “nervous system,” they can also merge to form a single robotic entity with one overall controller.

That’s the big advance here: Previous designs for modular robots rely on 10 individual robots, each with their own machine brain, trying to cooperate as one. Sure, they would probably be more successful than 10 humans trying to act as a unit, but those modular robots wouldn’t have the kind of precision or quick reactions of a single larger robot designed specifically to perform the given task. This new design changes that.

“Understanding which morphology is appropriate to which task and environment is a problem nature solves over millions of years using evolution,” the researchers write in the paper, saying their robots aim to solve those problems on the fly. “Our vision is that, in the future, robots will no longer be designed and built for a particular task. Instead, we will design composable robotic units that give robots the flexibility to autonomously adapt their capabilities, shape and size to changing task requirements.”

These little guys aren’t quite ready to come together and defend the world from invading monsters — if anything, their closest sci-fi analogue are the helpful DRDs from the cult classic Farscape. For now, they aren’t much more than a curiosity, able only to operate in two dimensions and form simple shapes.

But the researchers are optimistic they can extend the basic principle into the third dimension and add flexible joints to the robots, greatly increasing their versatility.but they demonstrate how it’s possible for individual machines to connect together into diverse shapes, each best suited to a particular function. The researchers call them mergeable nervous system robots, or MNS, and they’re not shy about the potential of their creations.

“MNS robots thus constitute a new class of robots with capabilities beyond those of any existing machine or biological organism,” the researchers write. “An MNS robot can split into separate autonomous robots each with an independent brain unit, absorb robotic units with different capabilities into its body, and self-heal by removing or replacing malfunctioning body parts — including a malfunctioning brain unit.”

We had never expected to be jealous of what are essentially a bunch of glowing curling stones on wheels, but these roboticists make one hell of a case.


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