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Soft modular StarBlocks robots

Researchers at Dartmouth College have developed StarBlocks, soft robotic blocks that connect to create structures capable of rolling, walking, grabbing and carrying. The reconfigurable modules can assemble into forms best suited for tasks like emergency response.

Inspired by collaborative animals like bridge-building ants, the team aimed to create robotic blocks that combine like biological organisms for different functions. Their StarBlocks desktop prototype demonstrates the concept's potential as a dynamic toolkit.

The star-shaped blocks have lightweight, stretchable frames 3D printed from a rubbery material. Mechanical muscles made of deformable alloys provide actuation to enable bending and contraction. Magnets allow the modules to attach.

Published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, the researchers showed various module arrangements: a domed tent structure, rolling wheel, four-legged walker, grabbing arm, and undulating chain that moves a ball. The blocks can also self-assemble when given position data.

According to Professor Devin Balcom, this represents the first modular robot to reconfigure for both manipulation and locomotion tasks. The combination of soft robot flexibility and rigid block control expands capabilities.

By mixing modularity, versatility and durability, the StarBlocks aim to merge key advantages of disparate systems. The team is progressing toward wireless versions for untethered formation and outdoor operation.

StarBlocks exemplify the power of creatively blending bio-inspiration, materials science and robotics. Just as ants collectively adapt to challenges, the blocks demonstrate the potential of cooperative, reconfigurable robot teams. By evolving StarBlocks for real-world situations, the researchers hope to put adaptive functionality in the hands of non-experts.

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