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New Technology Creates Soft
Robots That Flow Like Mercury

An advanced system of microchips developed by top universities is attempting to perfect technologies similar to those depicted in the movies Terminator 2 and Transformers where programmable morphing computers can take on several shapes and forms depending on their intended purpose.

Researchers are developing techniques which may be used in warfare or pharmaceutical applicaitons of the future to create materials that self-assemble or alter their shape, perform a function and then disassemble themselves. These capabilities offer the possibility for morphing aircraft and ground vehicles, uniforms that can alter themselves in any climate, and “soft” robots that flow like mercury through small openings to enter caves and bunker complexes.

Several university teams, including Harvard, Cornell, and MIT,  are working on different approaches to create "programmable matter"—made of individual pieces that can self-assemble into tools or spare parts. One of the approaches being examined uses sheets of self-folding material that can form three-dimensional shapes on command.

A revolutionary new technology in being developed by DARPA that may allow future war leaders to command their equipment to physically change itself to meet new operational needs or to form spare parts or tools.

In early 2007, DARPA made a request stating that ChemBots should be "soft, flexible, mobile objects that can identify and manoeuvre through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions". It goes on to add that, "nature provides many examples of ChemBot functionality. Many soft creatures, including mice, octopi, and insects, readily traverse openings barely larger than their largest 'hard' component."

Since then several biotechnology scientists have ascribed to idea that the same bots could be used in nanotechnological applications in vaccines and other medications.

“You’re blurring the distinction between materials and machines. Materials act like computers and communications systems, and communications systems and computers act like materials,” program manager Dr. Mitchell R. Zakin says.

The Programmable Matter program is now approximately five months into its second phase, which is scheduled to last about 15 months. The first phase of the effort involved five teams, two from Harvard University, two from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and one from Cornell University made up of experts from a range of disciplines such as computer scientists, roboticists, biologists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, physicists and artists

Among the fascinating research projects is a wrench that can it disassembles itself back into its components and re-forms into a hammer

The teams methods range from developing two-dimensional objects that fold into three-dimensional shapes to particles that build up to larger structures. One group is building what Zakin describes as “self-folding origami” machines that use specialized sheets of material with built-in actuators and data. These machines use cutting-edge mathematical theorems to fold themselves into virtually any three-dimensional object.

One Harvard team has developed a programming language to manipulate the DNA. Researchers can command the binding interactions between long synthesized strands of DNA, something that has never been done before.

Another team has developed a way to both program and coat objects with DNA. The DNA strands act as a "molecular Velcro" to hold small objects together to assemble into a tool. After it is used, the DNA can be commanded to release and disassemble the object.

Another team’s approach mimics biological functions on a millimeter scale to copy how proteins are built in living organisms. Scientists created a programming language that allows each component of the material to process information. “When we put the whole thing together, it’s a computer,” he says.

May 31, 2010


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