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MIT researchers invent self-sculpting sand

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    Apr. 2, 2012: Professor Daniela Rus and PhD student Kyle Gilpin of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT have developed "smart sand" -- a rapid prototyping system involving small robots that can assemble themselves into tools after being given basic instructions.M. Scott Brauer

  • smart sand MIT 4.jpg

    To attach to each other, the cubes use 'electropermanent magnets,' materials whose magnetism can be switched on and off with jolts of electricity. Each cube has magnets recognizable by the reddish wires wrapped around them on four of its six faces.M. Scott Brauer

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    Daniela Rus, left, and Kyle Gilpin, photographed in their office and lab at CSAIL at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.M. Scott Brauer

Skip the pail and shovel: Your next sand castle may build itself.

Scientists and students with the Distributed Robotics Laboratory at MIT have developed "self-sculpting sand," the university said Monday.

New algorithms could enable heaps of the stuff that can assume any shape, allowing spontaneous formation of new tools or duplications of broken mechanical parts, the school said.

“They have the ability to latch onto their neighbors; they have the ability to talk to their neighbors; they have the ability to do some computation," explained Robert Wood, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University, and director of Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory.

Team members on the project are slated to present research at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May, describing their experiments. These include testing the algorithms on somewhat larger particles—cubes about 10 millimeters to an edge, with rudimentary microprocessors inside and very unusual magnets on four of their sides.

'They have the ability to latch onto their neighbors; talk to their neighbors; do some computation.'

- Robert Wood, director of Harvard’s Microrobotics Laboratory.

In laymen’s terms, smart sand is similar to the rough block of stone that a sculptor begins with. The individual grains pass messages back and forth and attach to each other to form a 3D object. Then the extraneous grains fall away, revealing the shape. When the object had served its function, it can be returned to the heap of sand.

Daniela Rus, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT, explained that the main challenge in developing smart sand is that the individual grains would have very few computational resources.

“How do you develop efficient algorithms that do not waste any information at the level of communication and at the level of storage?” she said in the release. “We would like to solve the problem without that requirement, because that requirement is simply unrealistic when you’re talking about modules at this scale.”

The same algorithm can be varied to produce multiple, similarly sized copies of a sample shape, or to produce a single, large copy of a large object, the school said.

“Say the tire rod in your car has sheared,” said Kyle Gilpin, a student at the school and co-author of the paper. “You could duct tape it back together, put it into your system and get a new one.”

Self-building sandcastles? Miniaturizing the Rubik's Cube-ish objects to the size of a grain of sand seems a preposterous task, but even that is not impossible. But it'll take a lot of engineering to complete, Wood said.

“This is a well-posed but very difficult set of engineering challenges that they could continue to address in the future,” he said.