A robot made of robots: Emergent transport and control of a smarticle ensemble

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Science Robotics  18 Sep 2019:
Vol. 4, Issue 34, eaax4316
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aax4316


Robot locomotion is typically generated by coordinated integration of single-purpose components, like actuators, sensors, body segments, and limbs. We posit that certain future robots could self-propel using systems in which a delineation of components and their interactions is not so clear, becoming robust and flexible entities composed of functional components that are redundant and generic and can interact stochastically. Control of such a collective becomes a challenge because synthesis techniques typically assume known input-output relationships. To discover principles by which such future robots can be built and controlled, we study a model robophysical system: planar ensembles of periodically deforming smart, active particles—smarticles. When enclosed, these individually immotile robots could collectively diffuse via stochastic mechanical interactions. We show experimentally and theoretically that directed drift of such a supersmarticle could be achieved via inactivation of individual smarticles and used this phenomenon to generate endogenous phototaxis. By numerically modeling the relationship between smarticle activity and transport, we elucidated the role of smarticle deactivation on supersmarticle dynamics from little data—a single experimental trial. From this mapping, we demonstrate that the supersmarticle could be exogenously steered anywhere in the plane, expanding supersmarticle capabilities while simultaneously enabling decentralized closed-loop control. We suggest that the smarticle model system may aid discovery of principles by which a class of future “stochastic” robots can rely on collective internal mechanical interactions to perform tasks.

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