Years ago, MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld had an audacious thought. Struck by the fact that all the world’s living things are built out of combinations of just 20 amino acids, he wondered: Might it be possible to create a kit of just 20 fundamental parts that could be used to assemble all of the different technological products in the world?
Gershenfeld and his students have been making steady progress in that direction ever since. Their latest achievement, presented this week at an international robotics conference, consists of a set of five tiny fundamental parts that can be assembled into a wide variety of functional devices, including a tiny “walking” motor that can move back and forth across a surface or turn the gears of a machine.
Previously, Gershenfeld and his students showed that structures assembled from many small, identical subunits can have numerous mechanical properties. Their work offers an alternative to today’s approaches to constructing robots, which largely fall into one of two types: custom machines that work well but are relatively expensive and inflexible, and reconfigurable ones that sacrifice performance for versatility.
Using this simple kit of tiny parts, Langford assembled them into a novel kind of motor that moves an appendage in discrete mechanical steps, which can be used to turn a gear wheel, and a mobile form of the motor that turns those steps into locomotion, allowing it to “walk” across a surface in a way that is reminiscent of the molecular motors that move muscles.
The new system is a significant step toward creating a standardized kit of parts that could be used to assemble robots with specific capabilities adapted to a particular task or set of tasks.