The Miche system is a collection of robots that, starting from an amorphous arrangement, can be assembled into arbitrary shapes and then commanded to self-disassemble in an organized manner. Much like a sculptor would remove the extra stone from a block of marble to reveal a statue, the Miche system, (short for Michelangelo), eliminates unnecessary modules to form a goal structure. Shape formation with Miche modules proceeds as follows. First, an initial amorphous shape is assembled by hand. The modules in this initial structure use local communication to establish their location within a system of coordinates. After the initial configuration has been assembled, the user provides a goal shape for the system. Using local communication, the group cooperates to distribute this information so that all modules know whether to remain as a part of the system or to extricate themselves. Finally, the unnecessary modules disconnect from the system and drop off to create the desired shape.
Creating robotic systems and smart objects by self-disassembly has one main advantage over existing approaches by self-assembly. Self-disassembling systems entail a simple actuation mechanism to disconnect which is generally easier, faster, and more robustly achievable than actively seeking and making connections. In our system, external forces must be employed to remove unwanted material from the system. Often, these forces can be found in the surrounding environment. For our experiments, we used gravity to pull unnecessary modules away from the final structure.
Modular robots that can self-disassemble provide a simple and robust approach toward the goal of smart structures, digital clay, and programmable matter. A collection of millions of modules, if each were small enough, could form a completely malleable building material that could solidify and then disassemble on command. Most types of objects and shapes could be created this way. The applications of self-disassembling systems include all the applications of self-assembling systems. The added flexibility of removing specific components from the assembly ensures that our approach is especially well suited to tasks requiring temporary supporting structures. For example, self-disassembling material could be applied as an active scaffolding to help heal severely broken bones that would otherwise require the use of permanent steel plates or pins. In addition to disassembling as the bone regrows, the scaffolding could provide valuable medical status information to doctors. In such a scenario, the bloodstream could carry away extra modules.