Self-Replicating Robots Demonstrated At Cornell

PORTLAND, Ore. — Robots at Cornell University are making copies of themselves without human intervention. In principle, the machines will thus be able to repair and reproduce themselves in space and other remote environments.

"Our self-replicating robots perform very simple tasks compared with intricacies in biological reproduction," said engineer Hod Lipson, a Cornell assistant professor. "But we think they demonstrate that mechanical self-reproduction is possible and not unique to biology." Self-replication is sometimes seen as the holy grail of robotics.

Lipson performed the work with EE Viktor Zykov, doctoral candidate Bryant Adams and graduate student Efstathios Mytilinaios at Cornell.

The goal of the engineers' work is to draw upon biological principles to enable robots to repair themselves as well as assemble "helpers." Such a capability would be especially useful in space, on the ocean floor or inside a "hot" nuclear reactor after a spill.

"Right now it's just a proof of concept, since the only useful function performed is to self-replicate," said Lipson. "But we intend to extend the basic principles so that robots can at least repair themselves in space or other hazardous environments."

To test their ideas, Lipson's team created a modular building block called a "molecube" — a mechanized cube filled with gears, magnets and electronics. Each molecube has an identical set of instructions in its microcontroller, which controls electromagnets on the cube's surface. The molecubes use the electromagnets to link themselves together. The robots are built entirely from the molecube subsystems, which are powered by electric rails embedded in their tabletop "environment."

Next, the researchers want to combine their real-world robot with previous simulation results where robots adapted to changing environmental conditions and came up with their own strategies for self-replication. They are also aiming to downsize the robots, which today are about 3 inches cubed. The next generation will likely be less than half that size. Also, Lipson's team hopes to enable future robots to use various means of locomotion, such as inchworming up and down stairs.

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