M-Blocks are small robotic cubes that are magnetic and which can roll around, climb and tumble, make leaps through the air, and move when they are upside down suspended. They are the brain child of John Romanishin, a student at MIT.
The M-Blocks are both mobile and stable and one day it is hoped that they will be able to work together and self-assemble themselves into furniture and equipment. They may even be able to configure themselves into scaffolding or even enter disaster regions and then reconfigure so that they are able to make a survey of the region.
Each of the robotic blocks contains a flywheel that spins at a maximum of 20,000 revolutions each minute. Upon stopping the rotational force is then transferred to the cube and this causes the cube to roll. Should the flywheel be spinning fast enough it makes the cube jump. The robotic cubes are fitted with magnets and these are located on the face along with the corners which keep the cubes aligned after they change position. The electro magnets can be turned on/off as desired.
The cube shape means that the robots are stable and as such they can be stacked easily into different configurations. They slide easily too and don’t have to rely on manipulators or armatures to bring them together. This means that the robotic blocks are able to take on almost any formation.
The creator of the M-Blocks had the idea following a request made by the head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Daniela Rus, in 2011. Romanishin is now working at CSAIL as a research scientist along with Rus. A paper describing the M-Blocks is going to be presented by Kyle Gilpin, a postdoctoral researcher, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.
While a laptop running a remote control program controls the robotic blocks, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the blocks could not be programmed so that they would build shapes that were specific in advance. It may one day be possible for thousands of the robotic blocks to form into a structure that is temporary, perhaps even being able to dismantle themselves if that structure was no longer needed.