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Scalable self-assembling robots

English title Scalable self-assembling robots
Applicant Pfeifer Rolf
Number 118117
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Institut für Informatik Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Information Technology
Start/End 01.12.2007 - 30.11.2010
Approved amount 158'163.00
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Keywords (6)

Multi-modular robots; self-assembly and self-repair; scale invariance; autonomous-distributed system; Self-assembly; modular robot

Lay Summary (English)

Lay summary
Background: Recent advances in robotics reveal the importance of autonomous self-construction and embodiment for building intelligent systems. While currently most robot construction and repair is performed manually this will no longer be possible when (a) the complexity of the to-be-designed systems exceeds a certain threshold, and (b) if these systems have to be truly adaptive. With conventional engineering hitting a complexity barrier it seems very useful to draw inspiration from systems like biological cells. Through natural evolution they have come up with many interesting solutions for some of the main problems that future robotics will have to deal with, like self-organization and adaptivity to changing environments, fault tolerance and self-repair, self-programming and self-replication, to name but a few. Research in our laboratory has shown that by taking into account the specific physics of an agent-environment interaction, control can be drastically simplified, i.e. the computational requirements can be strongly reduced.
Goal of ongoing project: The goal of this project was to achieve self-assembly and self-repair in a self-organized robotic system consisting of many modules. Towards this end, the size of the individual modules has been reduced significantly (from dm to cm). This was a necessary prerequisite for studying artificial "organisms" composed of a large number of modules. Drawing from our existing experience in designing, constructing and controlling macroscopic multi-modular systems, we investigated smaller modules that encountered qualitatively different kinds of mechanical problems which could not be solved by simply reducing the size of current macroscopic components like electrical motors. Therefore, this project focused on finding "scale-invariant" principles for assembly and control based, for example, on exploiting module morphology and materials. We employed both simulations and experiments with real world robots to explore how optimizing module morphology and material properties could facilitate self-assembly.
Goal of project extension: Having made significant progress during this project and encouraged by the obtained results, we would like to further pursue this research area. The technological and conceptual advancements achieved so far with small-scale modular robots offer new and exciting opportunities to deepen both the realization and the theoretical understanding of scalable self-assembly.
Importance: By exploring novel "scalable technologies", i.e. technologies that can be made arbitrarily small, we are providing a small but significant step towards massively modular self-reconfigurable robots. There are two major implications of this research. On the one hand it presents an approach towards tackling the "complexity barrier" in engineering, and on the other hand it is of theoretical importance because the concept of "morphological computation" - incorporating morphology and materials - provides a new way of conceptualizing computation.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
105634 Scalable self-assembling robots 01.12.2004 Project funding (Div. I-III)