MIT Researchers Look to "Transformers" to Reimagine How Robots Work

There's massive potential in these tiny shape-shifting robots.


At first glance, the tiny robot called Primer looks nothing like a robot. Built by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the little guy looks like a cube, until it starts transforming.

Like the Autobots and Decepticons, Primer is a robot in disguise, and it’s ability to take on new forms could radically alter how robots perform tasks and function alongside humans.

These scientists have created a tiny, cube-shaped robot called “Primer” that can put on any of four exoskeletons to perform tasks like walking . It can also wear more than one exoskeleton at a time, each of which allows it to perform tasks like walking, rolling, floating, and gliding.

The research, conducted by Rus and her team, was published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

Though the tasks this particular robot carries out — rolling, walking, sailing, and gliding — may seem simple on their own, the potential of this very first Transformer and its successors is enormous.

This type of innovation allows robot researchers and engineers to rethink robots on a fundamental level. Rather than relying on multiple robots that are very specifically designed and engineered to do only one thing well, robots like Primer have the potential to do pretty much anything.

“If we want robots to help us do things, it’s not very efficient to have a different one for each task,” Daniela Rus, director of the MIT lab CSAIL and a co-principal investigator of the project, said in a statement Wednesday. “With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different ‘accessories’ to use in different situations.”

How Primer, surrounded by its various exoskeletons, undergoes mechanical metamorphosis .

Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL

“This work shows the possibility that a mere element or material can develop its structure, act as a robotic (or functional) entity, and keep overwriting the abilities and boundaries,” Shuhei Miyashita, former CSAIL postdoc and a leader of this project, tells Inverse.

Let’s look closer at how Primer works. To step out of the skeleton and apply another, Primer needs only enter water. This enables it to “molt.”

The possibilities continue to multiply as Primer is given various functions with the help of its detachable appendages. Next, researchers aim to give it the ability to burrow in sand, drive through water, and even camouflage.

Looking still further out, consider how Primer could reshape space exploration, for instance. A compact robot equipped with various exoskeletons for performing many different functions could handle lots of different missions without taking up the same kind of space and resources that a bunch of single-purpose robots would. Or, in the case of sea exploration, the same robot tasked with carrying out the mission’s primary task might also be in charge of getting itself out into the water to begin with.

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