We’ve seen both companies and research teams attempt to make modular robots an everyday reality, but, more often than not, they all run into the same problem: the mechanism that allows those devices to connect to each other is complicated and fragile. With a new design called FreeBOT, a team of researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen may have figured out a simple but elegant solution to that problem as highlighted by IEE Spectrum.
Each FreeBOT comes encased within an iron shell. Inside, there are a pair of motorized wheels and a single magnet — in that way, it’s not too dissimilar from one of Sphero’s adorable STEM toys. The combination of a ferromagnetic shell and an internal magnet is what allows two or more FreeBOTs to attach to one another. When a FreeBOT moves close to one of its friends, its magnet excites a magnetic field in both its shell and that of its counterpart, allowing them to attach without much fuss. They don’t need to connect at a specific point, and detaching is as simple as one of the robots turning on its motorized wheels and moving away. As you can see from the above video, multiple FreeBOTs can work together to mantle over obstacles. The magnet inside each FreeBot also allows it to traverse over ferromagnetic surfaces, and that effect is more pronounced when a group of FreeBOTs work together.
It may take a while before you see a swarm of FreeBOTs out in the wild, climbing their way over obstacles. In their current iteration, they’re not autonomous and require a remote control. But that’s not stopping the researchers who worked on the project. They plan to produce more units to show off the potential of their invention and work on a way to make them more autonomous.