For those of you counting down to the robot uprising, you may be interested in the latest news from engineers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. They've created autonomous robots that randomly dock with each other.

The little hexagonal modules that make up the flying drone are completely self-sufficient. In the context of a robot army, that means the airborne robot could be indestructible. Because the magnetically connected ‘bots easily break away from each other, they could blow apart under attack, and then reassemble themselves on the ground, good as new.

For now, Raymond Oung, one of the lead researchers, envisions the self-controlled ‘bots more as a teaching tool for describing control systems than a tool of war. Once the modules meet up on the ground, the way they propel themselves into the air and stay there is is a dynamic demonstration of how a servo system works.

Communicating via infrared sensors – like the kind in your TV remote – the ‘bots quickly adapt to the changing conditions of flight. Each module has its own attitude sensor, and broadcasts its location to others in the collective. That way, if the aircraft starts tilting towards the right, the modules on the right side generate more thrust to compensate.

Add a dash of autonomous walking robots to these shape-shifting flyers, and you've almost got an airborne T-1000.

Okay, okay, they're not quite there yet. So far, the Swiss robotics team has only flown four of the self-assembling ‘bots as one. But Raymond Oung, one of the lead researchers, says there's virtually "no upper limit on the number of modules" you could fly. By the end of the summer, they hope to demonstrate a swarm of twelve.

After that, who knows. It's only a matter of time…


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