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A research team led by Cornell University demonstrated a bunch of modular robots that can move together as one but can break apart and reform as a different shape that's better suited to their assigned tasks or to navigate obstacles.

The modular robot, developed by the University of Pennsylvania, is actually made up of several cubed robots with wheels on four sides. They attach to each other using magnets and to a central unit sporting camera and a computer for processing the incoming data.

Each of the cubes communicates with the central tower over Wi-Fi. The Tower's computer runs on software that includes perception algorithms for mapping and navigation and an "a high-level planner to direct its actions and reconfiguration," all of which help the modular robot collective to autonomously navigate an environment and perform tasks.

The research team already had a database of 57 robot configurations that were populated with design ideas from students and competitions. Those configurations include one called Proboscis (with an extended arm for grabbing), another called Scorpion (where cube-bots are arranged in a T-shape) and another dubbed Snake (with all the modules arranged in a single line). The system's library also includes 97 behaviours, including picking up or dropping something, reaching high and moving forward or back.

When it gets activated, the robots dive into these configurations and behaviours to form a plan of attack to complete an assigned task. The researchers say that these robots are the first that are capable of tackling tasks and reconfiguring their overall shape on their own, doing so by analyzing the task itself and by examining their environment. The robot system was put through its paces in three experiments.

The robots were first tasked with finding, retrieving and delivering all pink and green objects to an area marked with a blue square. After exploring the space in Car mode and finding an object, the setup reshaped itself into the Proboscis form, grabbed the object from within a narrow space and then changed shape again to carry it to the designated area of dropoff.

The second mission for the robots was to place a circuit board in a mailbox at the top of some stairs, and it took the robot 24 attempts to nail the task, with climbing the stairs proving particularly problematic. It was finally tasked with placing a postage stamp on the same mailbox.

"Modular robots, in general, are just fascinating systems because you're not restricted by one shape, so there's a lot of flexibility," said project lead Hadas Kress-Gazit. "The hardware is still in research stages, but if we had commercial modular robots they would be very useful for anything where the environment changes significantly and the robot should adapt to its environment as well."

You can see the modular cube bot collective in action in the video below.

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