Smartphones. Smart devices. Smart sand. Is one of these things not like the other or has the world of robotics been introduced to something so fantastical, it’s almost like it’s straight out of a book of magic?
The answer is the latter, as the Distributed Robotics Laboratory (DRL) at MIT’s (News - Alert) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has invented this self-sculpting “sand.”
What these robotic pebbles do is basically take on the shape that they’re needed to – a sort of self-assembling little robot. Think miniature Transformers. MIT News compared it to stone carving, writing that the heap of sand someone starts with is similar to a block of stone that a sculptor begins with.
These small cube-shaped pebbles, measuring 10 millimeters across the edges, are programmed and covered in magnets, which get switched on or off though a small electrical charge. An object that gets immersed into a box filled with ”smart sand” has its edges delimited by its neighboring pebbles with which it is in contact. The shape of the object is the mirrored by cubes which activate the magnets and bind together in self-sculpting manner, while the other modules switch off.
The Sandman would certainly approve of this experiment. A recent YouTube (News - Alert) video explains the algorithm, which makes this stuff work, and it’s a rather interesting site to see.
The question is, can these little pebbles be even smaller to mimic the appearance of true sand?
“Take the core functionalities of their pebbles,” said Robert Wood, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University, who directs Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory. “They have the ability to latch onto their neighbors; they have the ability to talk to their neighbors; they have the ability to do some computation. Those are all things that are certainly feasible to think about doing in smaller packages.”
Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli