Real-life "Transformers" could soon be used by American soldiers on the battlefield.
The Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is well into the second phase of a project to develop "programmable matter" that could reshape itself to fit any situation, reports SIGNAL magazine.
Program manager Dr. Mitchell R. Zakin give the example of a soldier needing a tool. He commands a bucket of programmable matter to form a wrench, and it does. Then he needs a hammer, and the wrench dissolves and reforms into a hammer.
"That is the essence of programmable matter," Zakin tells SIGNAL.
Other applications of the technology would be robots that reshape themselves to adapt to specific jobs or conditions, aircraft wings that morph for more efficient airflow, uniforms that change density and coloring according to environment, and even "Terminator 2"-style liquid-metal robots that flow through cracks and small openings.
The process depends on getting very small particles of matter to independently organize themselves, Zakin explains.
"You're blurring the distinction between materials and machines," he says. "Materials act like computers and communications systems, and communications systems and computers act like materials."
Five teams from Harvard, M.I.T. and Cornell are collaborating on the project, Zakin says.