To make robots cooperate with each other and work together, you have a couple of options. The first is to program them to work with information from their surroundings, with which individual robots can sort of organize and work towards a larger goal. However, that's not so easy to do. A second option is have one central command center that organizes all of the individual robots itself, but that leaves the system open to widespread failure if that central command goes down for some reason. But researchers have developed a method that bridges those two methods and their work was published today in Nature Communications.
The researchers created individual robots that can work on their own, but when they come in contact with another, they link together and shift control over to a single bot. As a group, they can form a slew of different configurations and can work together under a single control center. Because that single control center isn't a permanent fixture but is instead interchangeable, if something goes wrong with it, the attached bots can break from it and transfer control to a different, functional robot. In other words, they can self-heal.
The researchers say that they're now working on using this technology with robots that can move in three dimensions and have flexible joints. And in the future the team hopes that this sort of work leads to robots that don't have to programmed and built for a specific task, but can have flexible, adaptable abilities. You can watch a video of the robots in action below and videos of the robots' other capabilities here.