Frames from a video show the replication process. A robot consisting of a stack of four cubes begins by bending over and depositing one of its cubes on the table. The remaining three cubes pick up additional cubes from "feeding stations" and transfer them to the new robot, which assists in the process by standing itself up.
One of the dreams of both science fiction writers and practical robot builders has been realized, at least on a simple level: Cornell University researchers have created a machine that can build copies of itself.
Admittedly the machine is just a proof of concept -- it performs no useful function except to self-replicate -- but the basic principle could be extended to create robots that could replicate or at least repair themselves while working in space or in hazardous environments, according to Hod Lipson, Cornell assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and computing and information science, in whose lab the robots were built and tested.
Lipson and colleagues report on the work in a brief communication in the May 12 issue of Nature.
Their robots are made up of a series of modular cubes -- called "molecubes" -- each containing identical machinery and the complete computer program for replication. The cubes have electromagnets on their faces that allow them to selectively attach to and detach from one another, and a complete robot consists of several cubes linked together. Each cube is divided in half along a long diagonal, which allows a robot composed of many cubes to bend, reconfigure and manipulate other cubes. For example, a tower of cubes can bend itself over at a right angle to pick up another cube.
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