DARPA-funded MIT program could pave the way for actual Transformers

By End the Lie

The milli-motein (Image credit: Screenshot from MIT video captured by End the Lie)

Thanks to a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the Pentagon’s research agency behind mind-bending projects like weaponized hallucinations – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has begun to develop miniature robots that may eventually pave the way for something like the fictional Transformers.

DARPA getting behind this type of research is hardly surprising given their new focus on robots that can approach human beings in their efficiency, increasingly lifelike humanoid robots, cheap robots capable of changing apparent shape and temperature, unbelievably fast legged robots, mind-controlled robots, etc.

In a recent MIT press release, they characterize their newly developed reconfigurable robots as the “robot equivalent of a Swiss army knife” since this technology could have a wide range of uses.

The researchers dubbed the tiny robots milli-motein, which is described as “a name melding its millimeter-sized components and a motorized design inspired by proteins, which naturally fold themselves into incredibly complex shapes.”

Indeed, as you can see in the below video, the design, conceived by Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, visiting scientist Ara Knaian and graduate student Kenneth Cheung, is quite clearly inspired by proteins, thus giving the tiny robots potentially limitless applications:

There’s quite a bit of innovation involved in these tiny robots, as Wired points out in writing, “the team also invented a new system called an electropermanent motor, which pairs a powerful magnet with a weaker one.”

This system allows the electronic manipulation of direction of the magnetic field of the weaker magnet, thus either canceling or increasing the operation of the powerful magnet.

This requires “a far smaller energy requirement than if the motor was powering the stronger magnet directly as energy is only needed to change shape, not to hold it,” according to Wired.

“This result brings us closer to the idea of programmable matter — where computer programs and materials merge to form a new kind of matter whose shape and function can be programmed — not unlike biology,” said Hod Lipson, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and computing and information science at Cornell University.

“Many people are excited today to learn about 3-D printing and its ability to fabricate any shape; Gershenfeld’s group is already thinking about the next episode, where we don’t just control the shape of objects, but also their behavior,” Lipson added in MIT’s press release.

According to Gershenfeld, the milli-motein is just one in a much larger family of similar devices “explored at size scales ranging from protein-based ‘nanoassemblers’ to a version where the chain is as big as a person,” the press release states.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of this technology is the reduced cost involved, a seemingly large part of DARPA’s current robotics research.

The milli-motein could “lead to robotic systems that can be dynamically reconfigured to do many different jobs rather than repeating a fixed function, and that can be produced much more cheaply than conventional robotics,” according to the press release, written by David Chandler.

It is also part of DARPA’s larger program called Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3), aimed at creating “a significantly improved scientific framework for the rapid design and fabrication of robot systems and greatly enhance robot mobility and manipulation in natural environments.”

DARPA’s M3 program seeks to radically re-envision robotics research through “fundamentally new approaches to the engineering of better design tools, fabrication methods, and control algorithms.”

Of course DARPA’s ultimate goal is to amplify “human effectiveness in Defense operations” and what role this type of technology will actually play in future military operations remains to be seen. How exactly the milli-motein will be used by the military is quite mysterious indeed.

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