Robots with mergeable nervous systems

Research article by Netcetera expert Nithin Mathews

A research article authored by Nithin Mathews, Senior Software Engineer at Netcetera, has been published in the renowned scientific journal “Nature Communications”. Nature communications is one of the premier peer-reviewed journals worldwide with an impact factor of 12.124 (as of 2016). In his research, Nithin Mathews developed a new control paradigm to enable mobile robots merge their bodies and control systems to form entirely new robots. These newly formed robots retain full sensorimotor control. This is an entirely new class of robots capable of exhibiting properties that go beyond those of any existing machine or biological organism.

To date, modular robots have only been able to display a limited range of hardwired behaviors, because they rely solely on distributed control. The newly developed mergeable nervous system (MNS) robot, can be composed of one or more modular robotic units but features a single robot control system at all times. Such robots are able to adapt their bodies and physically connect to each other to become a new independent robot with one merged nervous system and a single brain unit (i.e., robot controller). The brain unit issues control commands that are then propagated through the nervous system. The robot nervous system locally translates these commands into useful instructions relevant to each robot unit part of the body.

Two autonomous MNS robots in different configurations shown alongside a tennis ball for scale. Left: hardware configuration with object lifting capabilities. Right: standard configuration.
An illustration showing coordinated motion (from left to right) of a three-unit MNS robot. The brain unit (in red) synchronizes the spatial and temporal actuator coordination of the robot in order to exploit object lifting capabilities available to a single robotic unit (the robots in the illustration are rendered 3D models).
3D exploded-view of the robotic platform (marXbot). A variety of modules can be combined to configure mobile robotic units with different physical and sensing capabilities.

One of the novel properties demonstrated by MNS robots is their ability to self-heal by combining their splitting and merging capabilities. That is, they can reconfigure their bodies to remove and possibly substitute faulty robotic units with spare units, including a malfunctioning brain unit.

An illustration showing the autonomous formation of a composite mergeable nervous system (MNS) robot by ten independent MNS robots (the robots in the illustration are rendered 3D models).

MNS robots currently operate in two dimensions and are limited to rigid connections. In the future, the research team intends to extend the concept to self-configurable modular robots that operate in three dimensional spaces and consider flexible joints. The team’s long term vision is to design and build robots capable of autonomously building other robots of the shape and size most suitable to their environments or the task at hand.

Before joining Netcetera, Nithin Mathews was a researcher at IRIDIA – the artificial intelligence research laboratory of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. Nithin Mathews conducted the research behind MNS robots together with his colleagues from Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium), Instituto Universitàrio de Lisboa (Portugal), and Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland). He spent four years researching on this particular subject. The basic technologies and robots used for experimentation took over 10 years to be developed. Netcetera contributed to this success story by providing Nithin Mathews with an educational budget that allowed him to finalize the publication of his extensive research work. The research article was officially published by Nature Communications under an open access license model on 12 September 2017 and has been featured on popular science outlets including Science News, Engadget, TechCrunch, Popular Science and the Wall Street Journal (see video below).

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