MIT’s Self-Assembling Robots

Calling it a low-tech solution to a high-tech challenge, MIT researchers have received a lot of attention recently for their modular system of self-assembling robot cubes. The video of the so-called M-Blocks in action, which MIT posted earlier this month on YouTube, has also become high profile. A recent tally has the video at nearly 1.5 million views and counting.


The text accompanying the video explains how the cubes are able to move around and climb over each other,  jump into the air, and roll across surfaces as they connect in a variety of configurations. And they do all this without any external moving parts. Instead, each M-Block contains a flywheel that can reach speeds of 20,000 rpm. When the flywheel brakes, it imparts angular momentum to the cube.  Precisely placed magnets on every face and edge of each M-Block enable any two cubes to attach to each other.

The simple design holds short- and long-term promise.  According  to an October 4 article by Larry Hardesty of the MIT News Office, it is hoped that the blocks can be miniaturized someday, perhaps to swarming microbots that can self-assemble with a purpose. Even at their current size, further development of the M-Blocks might lead to “armies of mobile cubes” that can help repair bridges and buildings in emergencies, raise scaffolding, reconfigure into heavy equipment or furniture as needed, or head in to environments hostile to humans to diagnose and repair problems, the article suggests.

While it may not rise to “cooperative group behavior,”  the ability of one cube to drag another and influence its alignment is impressive. What could 100 or more of these robots accomplish as MIT researchers continue to develop algorithms to control them?

A prototype of the new modular robot, with its flywheel exposed. (Photo: M. Scott Brauer)

A prototype of the new modular robot, with its interior and flywheel exposed.
(Photo: M. Scott Brauer)

CC279: Working with RobotBasic

In Circuit Cellar’s October issue, columnist Jeff Bachiochi introduces readers to RobotBasic, a free robot control programming language that you can use to control real or simulated robots, and provides a detailed explanation on how to use it.

Photo 1: This army of robots all use the RobotBASIC Robot Operating System (RROS). Note the large robot has an arm located just above the wheels that is controlled by a second RROS. It uses an on-board laptop running a RobotBASIC (RB) application. The small robots are all controlled via a Bluetooth link from an external PC running an RB application.

Photo 1: This army of robots all use the RobotBASIC Robot Operating System (RROS). Note the large robot has an arm located just above the wheels that is controlled by a second RROS. It uses an on-board laptop running a RobotBASIC (RB) application. The small robots are all controlled via a Bluetooth link from an external PC running an RB application.

“About five years ago, John Blankenship and Samuel Mishal coauthored Robot Programmer’s Bonanza, a book explaining the freely available RobotBASIC IDE they offer. RobotBASIC (RB) is a powerful language that enables you to use standard BASIC syntax (or a modified C-style syntax ( i.e., ++, +=, !=, and &&) to quickly write a program to control and simulate a robot with many types of sensors,” Bachiochi says. “This is a great tool to teach programming.”

RB, with more than 800 commands and functions, can also be a tool for non-robotic applications such as tackling tough engineering problems or creating animated simulations, Bachiochi says.

It’s likely that anyone who starts out simulating with RobotBasic will eventually want to control real robot hardware.

“There is no need to worry,” Bachiochi says. “RB was written to make use of a PC’s I/O. The parallel port is a good source for digital I/O and the serial port is well suited for external communication. The same commands used for robot movement in the simulator can alternatively be sent to a serial port establishing a sort of serial robot command protocol. But, tethered robots aren’t so cool, and many robots are too small to tote around a PC as their “great and powerful Oz.”

“Luckily, much has changed since RB’s original concepts were put into practice,” he adds. “We all know what has happened to these PC ports. They’ve fallen under the USB’s mighty power. RB doesn’t care whether it is talking with a serial port or a USB virtual serial port. USB offers inexpensive Bluetooth dongles and can create wireless serial communication to external devices.”

Bachiochi also discusses the RobotBASIC Robot Operating System (RROS), created to support RB’s serial robot command protocol. The module is available from RB’s website.

“The RROS is a preprogrammed module that can receive communication from RB, interpret commands, and directly interface to hardware,” Bachiochi says. “The module is a Pololu Baby Orangutan robot controller, consisting of an Atmel ATmega328P microcontroller and a Pololu TB6612 dual motor driver carrier in a DIP24 form factor. You can use the module (which comes preprogrammed with the RROS) to build robots like those shown in Photo 1.”

Bachiochi’s look at RB and RROS is a two-part series. In Part 2, appearing in Circuit Cellar’s November issue, Bachiochi will explain how to translate between RROS and the iRobot Create Open Interface.

So, if you want explore a programming language that can take you from simulated to real-world robotics control, check out the October and November issues.


Multi-Tasking Robot Platform

Fisnar F9960N

Fisnar F9960N

The F9960N multitasking robot is designed to dispense applications including miniature SMT circuit boards, large PCBs, and finished assemblies. The robot’s dispensing and coating system can be integrated within a conveyor-dependent inline manufacturing environment or installed as a stand-alone module.

The enclosed environment provides access for fume extraction systems, which creates a safeguard from potentially hazardous substances. Access to the working area is through a security door, which is locked while in operation but accessible during programming.

The robot includes a 178-mm touchscreen display that enables you to program a dispense path with unique characteristics (e.g., continuous path and point-to-point routing).

Contact Fisnar for pricing.

Fisnar, Inc.

C-Programmable Robot Kit



Global Specialties recently introduced the ASURO Robot, a small autonomous multi-sensored robot developed for educational purposes by the DLR, the German Aerospace Center.

The  ASURO is completely programmable in C. Except for the printed circuit boards (PCB), only standard parts are utilized and freeware tools can be used for programming. The ASURO comes unassembled and includes a soldering guide, making it suitable as an introduction into processor-controlled hobby electronics for school, university, and technical education projects.

The ASURO Robot’s features include an ATmega8L microcontroller; an 8-bit AVR-RISC processor; a software and training manual CD; AVR-GCC freeware for use with Windows or Linux; a USB IR transceiver with flash software; remote control and PC-programming possibilities via USB transceiver; wireless control possibilities with optional Bluetooth and 433 MHz RF; six collision-detector sensors; an optical line-tracker unit; two independently controlled 3V-DC motors; an odometer sensor on both wheels; and pre-programmed firmware for easy hardware testing.

The list price is $99.

Global Specialties

CC278: Evolving Neural Networks in Robotics

ccpostrobotAre you curious about how an evolving neural network helps a robot learn about itself and its environment?


A neural network with two inputs, one output, and three hidden neurons.

In the September issue of Circuit Cellar, Walter O. Krawec begins a two-part series that describes an ENN he uses in robot development experiments, explains how short-term memory (STM) evaluates a network’s conditions and how to add data to STM, and discusses how an ENN uses a robot’s minimalistic “instincts” and “reflexes” to guide a robot’s evolution.

Krawec, who has been building robots since 1999, is a research assistant and PhD student in Computer Science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. The work presented in his two-part series is based on a paper published in the proceedings of the 13th International Artificial Life Conference in 2012.

The overall goal of the Krawec’s experiments in developmental robotics is to enable a robot to learn on its own without human intervention. “An ENN is used to accomplish this,” he says.  “This network will be capable of growing and learning in real time as the robot operates.”

In his series, Krawec presents an architecture he says “enables a robot to ‘grow’ from a naive individual with no knowledge of itself (i.e., no notion of what its sensors are reporting or what its outputs actually do) to one that can operate in an environment.”

“This architecture will consist of an evolving neural network (ENN), a short-term memory (STM), and simple instincts and reflexes.

“Despite a minimal set of instincts, which provide penalties and rewards for certain actions (e.g., crashing into a wall, the robots described in this article sometimes develop complicated and unexpected behaviors. Such behaviors range from following walls (despite the robots’ binary proximity sensors) to games of ‘follow the leader.’…

“This article explores basic artificial neural network (ANN) concepts and outlines the ENN I’m using in this project. This is a neural network that, over time, learns not only by adjusting synaptic weights but also by growing new neurons and new connections (generally resulting in a recurrent neural network). Finally, I’ll discuss the STM system and how it is used to evaluate a network’s fitness.”

The second article in Krawec’s series appears in Circuit Cellar’s October issue.

“In Part 2, I’ll examine the reflex and instinct system, which feeds reward information to an ENN and the ‘decision path’ system, which rewards or penalizes chains of actions,” Krawec says. “Finally, I’ll discuss experiments conducted to demonstrate this architecture in a simulated environment. In particular, I’ll describe some interesting behaviors that robots have developed in trial runs.”

For more, check out Krawec’s articles on “Experiments in Developmental Robotics” in the September and October issues. You will also find information and videos about his work with robots on his website.