Entry Date:
December 9, 2010

Robot Pebbles

The Robot Pebbles are our newest programmable matter system, which is capable of forming shapes through self-disassembly. In general, programmable matter systems are composed of small, intelligent modules able to form a variety of macroscale objects in response to external commands or stimuli. We aim to create a system of sand grain sized modules that can form arbitrary structures with a variety of material properties on demand.

The Robot Pebbles are the second generation of the Miche: Modular Self-Disassembly system. While the Miche system was composed of modules measuring 45mm per side, the Robot Pebbles are only 12mm per side. Not only can the Robot Pebbles self-disassemble to form shapes from an initial block of material, the individual modules can, when shaken or vibrated, self-assemble to form a close-packed initial block of material. We envision that the Robot Pebbles, when made slightly smaller, will form a universalSmart Sand toolkit allowing anyone with strict weight or size constraints to produce almost any object on demand. Given a bag of Smart Sand, the user conveys the desired object to the modules and then begin shaking the bag. As the modules in the bag come into contact and exchange information, they decide when to bond with their neighbors. After this selective bonding process, the user opens the bag, grabs the object, brushes off the extra material, and can then use the object for the task at hand. When the user is done with the object, he places it back in the bag where it disintegrates so that the modules can be reused indefinitely.

We are actively working to improve both the Robot Pebble hardware and algorithms. To achieve our goal of creating Smart Sand we want to continue miniaturing to achieve a ten-fold reduction in size that results in a single module measuring 1mm per side. This will require a transition from building the modules with discrete components to a lithographic approach that builds hundreds or thousands of modules on a single silicon wafer. In addition to miniaturing the modules, we are pursuing several approaches to create a 3D system.

We are also developing algorithms that allow us to form shapes in several unique ways. The first of these is magnification: we aim, after burying a passive object in Smart Sand, to create a larger replica. In addition, we are finalizing an algorithm which allows for the formation of several distinct shapes from a single block of initial material.