Claytronics: The (Changing) Shape of Things to Come
Once an object is designed and built, it’s a finished piece. You can paint it, you can break it, you can modify it, but it’s basic form is limited by the materials involved and the shape it was initially hammered or molded into. But what if objects could change their shape based on electronic commands? Scientists are currently working on creating just that type of “programmable matter,” which could allow everyday objects like watches and chairs to shift into other types of objects at the press of a button.
This so-called “claytronics” technology is the result of a collaboration between researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Intel Research Labs Pittsburgh. At the heart of the project are “catoms” (claytronic atoms), micro robots that can interact with each other and behave like atoms, held together electrostatically and cooperating to create objects. These less-than-a-millimeter devices would organize themselves into whatever form they were ordered to take. Right now, the research team is testing the concept using much larger prototypes. According to the website:
As these creative systems have evolved in the Carnegie Mellon-Intel Claytronics Hardware Lab, they have prepared the path for development of a millimeter scale module that will represent the creation of a self-actuating catom — a device that can compute, move, and communicate — at the nano-scale.
Theoretically, the technology could allow such mind-blowing possibilities as walls that could grow doors or windows on command, or shape-shifting furniture.
DARPA is working on a similar idea to create equipment that could change shape in the field, along with shape-shifting robots that could flow like mercury through tiny openings. In 2009, the Pentagon unveiled a sheet of programmable matter (developed via Harvard and MIT) that could fold itself into the shape of a boat or a plane on command. So while it may be some time before we see anything like those slippery androids in Terminator 2, shape-shifting robotics is advancing rapidly.
The Intel researchers, in fact, think that programmable matter could be a reality by 2020.
You can see a list of published research on the topic here, and view a video below:
Source: Carnegie Mellon