The ElectroVoxel, a modular robot that can change shape in space

The MIT laboratory specialized in artificial intelligence (CSAIL) and the University of Calgary unveil robots of a new kind. Called ElectroVoxels, these are cubic modular robots that can be assembled together to take on different shapes. They have no motors or moving parts, instead using electromagnets to move around each other in microgravity, as reported. Engadget.

Polarity changes

The edges of the cubes are ferrite cores covered with copper wire. Each side of an ElectroVoxel is approximately 60mm. The robots move thanks to the changes in polarity of the magnets, which allows the edges to attract or repel each other. By moving the cubes can change the shape of the set, acting as the building blocks of a single set. Circuit boards and electronics inside each cube control the direction of current from each electromagnet.

Two basic movements are possible: ElectroVoxels can rotate around the edge of another cube or switch from one ElectroVoxel to another. The researchers have also developed software to program their movements: it is possible to highlight specific magnets, control the speed of the cube’s movements, and avoid collisions between the cubes. Researchers can decide which cube should move in which direction, and the software will determine the electromagnetic assignments needed to perform the task. Up to 1000 ElectroVoxels can be controlled by the software.

Opportunities in space?

The ElectroVoxels were tested during a parabolic flight (which allows to be in microgravity for short periods). The researchers say the robots can operate in low-gravity environments and could therefore be used to modify or create structures in space. They imagine the use of ElectroVoxels to modify the inertia properties of a space vehicle, which would make it possible to reduce fuel requirements, in particular by solving problems related to mass and volume during launch.

Researchers are already imagining other space-related use cases, such as augmenting and replacing structures during launches, building temporary structures to help astronauts, assist with spacecraft inspections, and more. A future version of ElectroVoxels could also allow the creation of storage containers.

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