The M-TRAN II robot, developed by the Japanese Distributed Systems Design Research Group, is made up of a dozen of modules. Each contains two blocks linked to each other. Each block can rotate 180 degrees around the link that connects it to its mate, and each module contains a magnet that can be switched on and off, enabling it to connect to other modules in the system.
The modules can rearrange themselves into countless different shapes and create different patterns of movement. M-TRAN can configure itself to march on four legs, shape-shift into a long string of modules that slithers across the floor like a snake, or it can pull itself into a wheel and roll or creep along the ground with its legs splayed out like a spider’s. The robot can even evolve a new walking strategy if it looses one module.
The possibilities are so immense that many of M-TRAN’s patterns of motion aren’t designed directly by human programmers. Genetic algorithms allow the robot to discover new ways of moving on its own. The M-TRAN computer cycles through possible patterns of motion, selecting the most promising ones, sampling their effectiveness, making further selections till the software evolves a new pattern that the robot can adopt.
Future uses for M-TRAN’s descendants include space rovers or deep-sea probes, as well as explorers in unknown or complicated environments, looking for people under debris or fixing leaky valves in polluted areas, such as nuclear plants.