The bot, called Primer, looks nothing like a machine and can basically be described as a small cubical structure which navigates on its own. Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) brought the tiny robot to life as part of the effort to create a machine that could tweak its structure to survive in different environments.
Primer dons different "outfits" or exoskeletons to change its form, something which provides it with the ability to walk, roll, sail, and glide. The whole process starts with the bot moving the centre of the exoskeletons and emitting a small amount of heat to wrap the flat sheet around itself like a suit – in specific shapes.
Once the desired shape (like a boat, wheel, or glider) is acquired with the outfit, Primer uses it as a means of locomotion and performs different tasks. It uses built-in magnets to navigate from one place to another and can even don different exoskeletons at once to combine different capabilities.
After completing the job, Primer can simply move into a body of water to loosen the folds and shed the suit, moving on to hop onto another one.
Scientists have developed robots to perform complex tasks such as conducting a dental implant and making food deliveries. But, a bot that could change its form dynamically is something that could prove really useful in the future, particularly in search and rescue and outer space missions.
"Imagine future applications for space exploration, where you could send a single robot with a stack of exoskeletons to Mars," says Shuguang Li, a member of the team working on Primer. "The robot could then perform different tasks by wearing different 'outfits.'"
The group is now working to upgrade Primer with added capabilities such as the ability to drive through water, camouflage its colour, or dig into the sand.