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Adam Danyal
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MIT’s 3D-Printed, Electromagnetic, Self-Reconfiguring Tiny Robots Could Change Space Exploration as We Know It

When in doubt, turn to electromagnetism. This is what the brainy geniuses, a.k.a., scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) did when they wanted to crack the code on how to replace bigger robots in space by making them smaller, more affordable, easier to construct, and more modular. By utilizing electromagnetism, or the physical interaction among electric charges, they figured out that you can eliminate the need to stuff bulky and expensive actuators and instead use individual blocks.

The MIT scientists “embedded small, easily manufactured, inexpensive electromagnets into the edges of the cubes,” which have a side length of 60mm. Given that they repel and attract, this enabled the robots to spin and move around each other and quickly morph into different shapes. They named these tiny robots, “ElectroVoxels.”  

ElectroVoxels’ electromagnets consist of just a ferrite core (comparable to little black tubes) wrapped in copper wire. Inside each of them lies tiny printed circuit boards and electronics that send currents through the right electromagnet in the right direction. Each facet of the ElectroVoxels is fused together using affordable 3D printed scaffolds and corner connectors – in other words, the complete assembly costs just 60 cents per cube!

Another plus, of the ElectroVoxels, is that they are entirely wireless and therefore don’t require any mechanical connections. Thus, making them easy to maintain and swap out. This comes especially handy when working on large-scale and more complex systems.

To make these 3D printed robots more accessible to the masses, the MIT researchers developed a control software to serve as a user interface. The program enables the visualization of the robotic configurations. Then it computes the electromagnetic operations needed to achieve them. This software allows users to control up to 1,000 cubes with predefined scripts. It can also change the speed, avoid collisions, and essentially “instruct the ElectroVoxels to take on virtually any shape.”

The ultimate goal of this approach to reconfiguration is to allow space structures to be worked on and replaced during multiple launches and to “create temporary structures to aid in spacecraft inspection and astronaut assistance,” etc.

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