My Thoughts on Technology and Jamaica: Dr John Romanishin at MIT's CSAIL develops M-Blocks, a set of semi-autonomous self-assembling Robots - Dr. Who's Daleks now has Terminator Transfomer Amigos

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dr John Romanishin at MIT's CSAIL develops M-Blocks, a set of semi-autonomous self-assembling Robots - Dr. Who's Daleks now has Terminator Transfomer Amigos

“We want hundreds of cubes, scattered randomly across the floor, to be able to identify each other, coalesce, and autonomously transform into a chair or a ladder”

Dr John Romanishin at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)’s CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) commenting on his research into self assembling robots known as M-Blocks

Looks like the World’s gonna get taken over a lot quicker than I thought. Dr John Romanishin along with his colleague and Teacher Professor Daniela Rus and Dr Hod Lipson, a robotics researcher at Cornell University have developed a set of modular robots called M-Blocks!

What’s significant here is that they have achieved what was previously thought to only be a fantasy from Transformers or even Terminator - semi-autonomous self-assembling robots as stated in the article “'Terminator'-style cube robots swarm and self-assemble”, published October 4, 2013 11:26 AM PDT by Amanda Kooser, CNET News.

Albeit mere research this development already has me fearful. Only a few days ago I did an article on Jelly-fish killing robots developed by the Urban Robotics Lab at  KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) called JEROS (Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm Robots) that are self autonomous and able to form groups to commit Jellyfish Mass murder of Blooms of Jellyfish as described in my blog article entitled “Urban Robotics Lab at KAIST develops the JEROS to Exterminate, Exterminate Jellyfish - JEROS are the Daleks of Dr. Who to keep Nuclear Reactors Safe in 2014”.

Now self-assembling autonomous Robots? That assembles without human intervention? Robots have already being designed that are capable of swarming together, a fairly easy programming task once each robot is bristling with GPS, Camera, IR and Laser proximity sensors and pre-assigned order within the group. This is akin to the group logic that govern how ants, bees, terminates and even coral , which are a network of small animals working cooperatively to achieve a set of common tasks.

What’s been missing up until now has been the mechanics of making the physical design of such Robotics. Geometry and miniaturization are important. They have to fit together in a tessellation that makes a bigger version of themselves that has the same shape of their smallest unit.

At the same time they have to be small enough to fit together and thus be malleable enough to form other shapes. This has bedeviled Design Robotics, but for the most part has been a mechanical problem, which was solvable, just that nobody knew how.

How Dr John Romanishin did it – Having a Magnetic Personality is key

Dr John Romanishin achieved this feat despite the naysaying commentary coming from his Professor Daniela Rus and then from her mentor Dr Hod Lipson from Caltech to eventually rope them into his research as well. And his solution was blessedly simple as outlined in the article “Surprisingly simple scheme for self-assembling robots”, published Oct 04, 2013 by Larry Hardesty, MIT News.

To quote Professor Daniela Rus, Director of MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)’s CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory): “It's one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time. We just needed a creative insight and somebody who was passionate enough to keep coming at it—despite being discouraged.”

Dr John Romanishin two year sojourn of discouragement has now ended in success, now that they are on target to present a paper on their research at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. And their solution, as many had suspected, was mechanically simple!

To create locomotion, they built the M-Blocks with the usual Control electronics and Wi-Fi Communications Circuit Boards typical of swarm bots. But he then added a flywheel that could spin at up to 20,000 revolutions per minute. Thus it was able to rotate and move the block without having any external wheels or legs or any other parts extending from off the M-Block.

Then he added Cylindrical Magnets, very similar to those found on the Apple iPad’s magnetic cover. They were polarized along the long axis i.e. half cylinders of North and South poles and they were attached to all beveled edges of the cube inside of rotating gimbals.

Thus, when an M-Block was given a command to move, it did so by a rapid precision control of the revolution of its internal flywheel using a Servo-Motor, which in turn spun the entire mass of the M-Block. To move on top of one M-Block to another, the self-rotating Cylindrical Magnets aligned according to their poles and thus formed a pivot that supports the full weight of the M-Block so that when the flywheel was activated, it could pivot on top of another M-Block, forming structures.

Practical Applications – Jack and the Beanstalk Cell Tower for inspection is now climbable

Interestingly, there was an unexpected discovery. Thanks to the presence of the self-aligning Cylindrical Magnets, the M-Block developed an ability to Jump, often 2 or 3 blocks at a time when forming structures. Also, due to their stability, they can climb up each other and form very tall and stable structures once the bottom M-Block in the stack is on a metallic magnetized surface.

This presents a ready application for their use to assist Astronauts on Spacewalks with small Tasks at the International Space Station, once specialized M-Blocks can be developed such as a Camera M-Block and a Welding Torch M-Block can be developed!

But the application that I’m interested in and which caught my eye originally was its jumping and climbing ability for the inspection of Telecom Tower Maintenance. Normally, if you have a problem with a Microwave Antenna, as a RF (Radio Frequency) Technician, you have to climb the tower to inspect it before calling the Riggers.

With one or even three of these M-Blocks, with one as a Camera M-Block or Tool M-Block, I could just set them to Climb or jump all the way up the Cell Tower, usually made of Steel, to inspect and send back pictures to my smartphone.

Thus the Telecoms Industry finds this product as interesting as even using Mini-Drones to inspect Cell Sites, as like a battery powered Drone with a Camera, it can be used to inspect the Cell Tower. The M-Block, however, has the advantage of being more compact, able to pack little Tools such as an analyzer or even an Electrical Tester or Frequency analyzer and most importantly, can be automated to do the inspection of the entire Cell Tower on its own!

Other fields that involve climbing high places in order to do work will now be possible, as it means that instead of sending a two (2) man team to check Cell Sites, Utility Poles or any place that’s located on a vertical climbable structure that ferrous i.e. made of Iron can be readily inspected and work undertaken using these M-Blocks, saving the company valuable hours and even money spent on repair.

M-Block’s Future - Terminator to help Mankind and great Experimental Robotics Toys

The dream of the Dr John Romanishin and his M-Block team is fairly simple going forward with their research into Modular Robotics:

1.      Build an army of 100 M-Block s to work autonomously to complete assigned tasks without human intervention
2.      Micro-miniaturization of the M-blocks to nanoscopic size i.e. like Terminator II
3.      Possibly design other M-Blocks but with different Polyhedral shapes e.g. Tetrahedron, Dodecahedron

These tasks will require the robots to self-assemble to form useful shapes or even equiptment as needed to assist humans in areas as diverse as disaster recovery or even Climbing Cell Towers, my favourite application I'd like to see in their current oversized shape. Repairing bridges and large structures is a bit of a stretch, as albeit held together by magnets, they'd have to be much physically stronger than their current design to withstand any harm that may come to them, necessitating stronger materials.

To that end, I’d also like to add that they also need to be programmed with Azimov's Three Rules of a Robot:

1.      A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.      A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3.      A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

I’d also like to suggest that they be marketed initially as Children's Toys as well as Open Source Tools for Robotics Engineers at High Schools and Universities via a Kickstarter or Indiegogo fund to raise money for further Research. Aside from scientific significance of this Mechanical Design, it also has interesting commercial prospects as well. Money raised from Crowd-funding, VC (Venture Capital) Funding as well Research Grants can take this project a long way towards advancing what I love to call the Robotics of Ants.

Artificial Intelligence in M-Blocks – Pass the EMP Please

Albeit I’m not a pessimist, I’m not so comfortable with autonomous Robots, no matter how much they can help with my work in the Telecoms Field as opined in my blog article entitled “Google and AI - I Robot” and “IBM Watson on Jeopardy and AI's Future - The Matrix meets The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes”.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) is great for Driving, as I’d like that though as I think a Nightrider Talking and Self Driving KITT Car is long overdue as argued in my blog article entitled “Volvo Testing Autonomous Motor Vehicles in Spain in Live Traffic - EU Project SARTRE adds self-driving AI with smartphone Control”.

They fact they can do so much thinking and talking to each other makes me worry that one day they’ll rise up and decide that they are superior to me and grind me to bits with their little M-Block Blowtorches and other miniaturized tools! At least with an EMP in my company vehicle, I might stand a Chance!

Aside from my misgivings expressed thus fat, these M-Blocks are more proof of the concept of Teamwork: ordinary folks accomplishing extraordinary feats.  That’s both true for the Dr John Romanishin and the doubting Thomas’s in his Team as well as the M-Blocks themselves!

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