MIT team uses 3D printing technology to develop shape-shifting robotic cubes for just $0.60

Researchers from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT and the University of Calgary have developed a new kind of shapeshifting robotic cube using 3D printing technology.

ElectroVoxels, as they are called, are self-configuring robot blocks that can assemble themselves into all sorts of shapes. These modular robots use no bulky and expensive motors, instead using built-in electromagnets as the actuation mechanism. This allows them to repel, attract and spin around each other with ease and scalability, like a hive mind of smart Lego bricks.

The MIT team has already spun their ElectroVoxels on parabolic flight, testing their functionality in microgravity conditions. They believe the work could have major implications for applications in outer space, such as dynamically morphing spacecraft or storage containers that change size based on payload.

Martin Nisser, lead author of the study, said: “When building a large, complex structure, you don’t want to be limited by the availability and expertise of the people assembling it, the size of your vehicle transportation or adverse environmental conditions. from the assembly site. While these axioms are true on earth, they get much worse for building things in space. If you could have structures that fit together from simple, seamless modules, you could eliminate many of these problems.

The cubes use electromagnets to configure themselves into different shapes and patterns. Photo via MIT.

Small, inexpensive and easy to produce

The ElectroVoxel is designed to be as simple and modular as possible. Each cube has a side length of 60 mm, with electromagnets bordering each edge. The electromagnets simply consist of a ferrite core wrapped in copper wire and inside each ElectroVoxel there is a tiny PCB that can send current through the electromagnets.

All components are fastened together using low cost 3D printed scaffolding and corner connectors, meaning the entire assembly costs only $0.60 per cube.

Additionally, ElectroVoxels are completely wireless, unlike conventional hinge mechanisms that require mechanical connections. This makes them extremely easy to maintain and replace, especially when dealing with complex large-scale systems.

To make it easier for others to use their 3D-printed robots, MIT researchers developed control software that serves as a user interface. The program allows users to visualize robotic configurations while calculating the electromagnetic operations needed to perform them. Users can control up to 1000 cubes with predefined scripts, with options to change speed and avoid collisions. Essentially, the software can be used to instruct ElectroVoxels to take virtually any shape.

The team tests its 3D printed cubes in microgravity conditions.  Photo via MIT.
The team tests its 3D printed cubes in microgravity conditions. Photo via MIT.

What makes ElectroVoxels so good for space?

The value of the cubes derives largely from their compactness and the fact that they exploit electromagnetism as an actuation mechanism. When sending a structure into space, it is important that it fits into the rocket used to launch it. Since the ElectroVoxels also benefit from a thrusterless reconfiguration, there is also no need to launch additional fuel to power them. Nisser says this alone solves many of the challenges associated with launch mass and volume.

He says: “We hope that this method of reconfigurability could allow space structures to be augmented and replaced over multiple launches, create temporary structures to facilitate spacecraft inspection and astronaut assistance, or that future iterations of these cubes could function as a form of self-sorting storage. containers”.

As for future work, the MIT team still needs to perform detailed modeling to optimize the ElectroVoxels for microgravity conditions. The goal is to move the work from the confines of the laboratory to the vacuum of space.

Nisser concludes: “While the potential benefits in space are particularly large, the paradox is that the favorable dynamics provided by microgravity means that some of these problems are also easier to solve – in space, even small forces can make big things happen. By applying this technology to solve real, short-term problems in space, we can hopefully incubate the technology for future use on Earth as well.

The anatomy of a single ElectroVoxel.  Photo via MIT.
The anatomy of a single ElectroVoxel. Photo via MIT.

MIT has been responsible for several innovations in 3D printing over the years. Last month, researchers at the university developed a new method of invisibly embedding information into physical objects using 3D printing technology. The concept is called “InfraredTags” and involves embedding infrared-readable barcodes and QR codes inside 3D printed parts. Visible only to dedicated IR sensors, these beacons are designed to be invisible to the naked eye.

More recently, researchers at MIT have developed a new method of 3D printing objects that change their appearance depending on the angle from which they are viewed. The approach paves the way for “programmable objects” with morphing images, a visual feature largely limited to flat 2D surfaces until now. The team believe their work can dramatically change the way people perceive product design, with everyday 3D printed objects potentially containing hundreds of different colors and patterns depending on how they are viewed.

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The featured image shows the cubes using electromagnets to configure themselves into different shapes and patterns. Photo via MIT.