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Steps on the Road to Programmable Matter (Infographic)

Diagrams explain the concept of self-assembly of tiny robots.
"Kilobots" are tiny robots that self-assemble into target shapes. (Image credit: By Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

As a proof of concept, 1,024 tiny, low-cost “Kilobots” were constructed and programmed with a simple algorithm that allows them to assemble themselves into simple patterns. Potentially, even tinier and more sophisticated self-assembling bots could become “programmable matter,” capable of taking any shape on command.

The Kilobots were partly inspired by the swarming behavior of bees and the bridge-building ability of ants. The simple robots have only a few parts, including an infrared LED for comminications and vibration motors for movement. The bots can communicate with each other over a distance of only three robot diameters.

For the Kilobot demonstration, first, a simple pattern is designed. A handful of “seed” bots are programmed with the target pattern. Those and a quantity of other bots are set up in a random arrangement. The bots slowly move into position according to their built-in assembly algorithm, which relies on edge following and other techniques. After a few hours the bots have assembled themselves into the desired patterns.

Karl Tate
Karl has been Purch's infographics specialist across all editorial properties since 2010.  Before joining Purch, Karl spent 11 years at the New York headquarters of The Associated Press, creating news graphics for use around the world in newspapers and on the web.  He has a degree in graphic design from Louisiana State University.