Army scientists, along with university researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have created a LEGO-like structure to connect materials they hope could build robots made of robots.

And much like ants linking up to form temporary bridges, tiny future robots may do the same to help soldiers move across the battlespace.

The LEGO-like lattice system are an early advance into ways to make robots that can reconfigure on their own, according to an Army statement.

One envisioned application, according to the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, would be a swarm of robots that could form a bridge across a river for troop crossing then reconfigure to another mission.

Dr. Bryan Glaz, associate chief scientist at the ARL Vehicle Technology Directorate, said in the statement that some of the applications could also include high-performance robots that could build impact/blast absorbing structures.

Part of this work comes directly from efforts to advance Army maneuver and movement.

A series of objectives that were laid out in science and technology investment included developing individual systems capable of four-dimensional transformation, changing a systems shape, modality and function, to assist ground combat.

“Robots rearranging to form a bridge made of robots, similar to ants, is one embodiment of our concept of structural robotics, which blur the line between active and passive elements and feature reconfigurability. It is still a motivating use case for the system, but we are looking at broader implications for ground robotics which are adaptable, reconfigurable, and resilient,” said Dr. Christopher Cameron, an Army researcher.

Researchers are also interested in building those impact-absorbing materials for similar robots. Using the LEGO-lattice configuration paired with injection molding helps for rapid assembly. And they don’t have to do just one thing.

That method of building the structures could give them a combination of characteristics such as becoming thicker when force is applied, getting stiff or flexible, depending on the need or reaction. And by using these materials in these ways, researchers said that larger structures can be put together than with conventional materials used in robots today.

Another CCDC project is developing advanced plastics through chemistry that would allow for an individual drone or robot to shape-shift itself, even mid-flight.

It won’t quite be like the T-1000 in the Terminator movie franchise. Instead of liquid metal it would likely use a memory-enabled plastic-like material.

Frank Gardea, a scientist with the Army Research Lab, part of the Combat Capabilities Development Command, talked with Army Times in September about recent research that has shown first steps in making the dream of a morphing drone come true, at least in a laboratory.

“The plastics you see every day, basically once you make the part, it stays in that shape, in that form,” Gardea said. “So, what we did was we introduced some chemistry that would allow us to modify that part by stimulating it. We apply some stimulate and we can either create a shape change or recycle the new material for a new process.”

Then they heat the plastic, making it change shape.

The material can be programmed to remember a shape it held before or stimulated into a new shape that the operator has selected.

“In the future, we want to be able to embed low-level intelligence,” Gardea said. “By doing that, the material, at a very low level, is aware of its shape. It knows what shape it’s in and through interactions inside the material it can change into a different shape.”

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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