They're called M-Blocks and the tiny, cubical robots that can spin, flip and jump their way into new configurations are the brainchild of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
According to MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), M-Blocks:
"[are] cubes with no external moving parts. Nonetheless, they're able to climb over and around one another, leap through the air, roll across the ground, and even move while suspended upside down from metallic surfaces.
"Inside each M-Block is a flywheel that can reach speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute; when the flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube. On each edge of an M-Block, and on every face, are cleverly arranged permanent magnets that allow any two cubes to attach to each other."
M-Blocks "have the ability to change their geometry according to task," says MIT robotics professor Daniela Rus.
"This is exciting because a robot designed for a single task has a fixed architecture. That robot will perform the single task well, but it will perform poorly on a different task in a different environment," she says.
John Romanishin came up with the basic concept in 2011, when he was still a senior at MIT. Despite initial skepticism, he and Rus, his professor, along with another MIT postdoc, Kyle Gilpin, eventually turned the idea into reality. There were lots of technical hurdles to overcome, not least of which was figuring out how to stop the cubes once they were in motion.
Extreme Tech writes:
"The flywheel is good at getting the M-Blocks moving, but stopping them is a different matter entirely. Romanishin's design includes a pair of small cylindrical magnets on each edge of the cube. The magnets are mounted on a tiny spinning axle so that as one cube approaches the other, the magnets can rotate so the opposite poles connect. Thus, any face of any two M-Block robots can link to each other. All the robot needs to do is use the flywheel to send itself tumbling or jumping in the general vicinity of a second M-Block, and they'll connect. That's really the strength of this system — a single component can move just fine on its own. If something falls off or is damaged while completing a task, that's not an insurmountable problem."
Commenting on the innovation, Geek says: "Modular robots are not a new trick, but modular cube shaped robots with no external moving parts? Now you've got something truly incredible."