The idea of transformers is cool even when they just turn from one thing to another, so how much cooler would they be if they could form into anything? That’s the goal MIT aims to achieve with their tiny reconfigurable chain links that could be the Swiss Army knife of robotics.
The idea is to create a motorised chain that can fold itself into anything you want at your command. Each motorised link is called a “milli-motein” for “millimetre-sized protein” and can readjust itself and its neighbours to fold into a theoretically infinite number of combinations using tiny motors. It’s like a robotic version of what proteins already do. Conceived by the head of MIT’s centre for Bits and Atoms, Neil Gershenfeld with help from Ara Knaian and Kenneth Cheung, the tech is in its earliest stages, but is already looking equally promising and just plain awesome.
So far, each milli-motein only has the power to move one of its neighbours, but future iterations should be able to up that number to two or three with better materials. Ideally, the chain segments will eventually be both powerful and cheap, meaning that all you need is a handful of them to get any tool or device you need providing you’ve got enough links, sort of like having a sufficiently large collection of Legos. Transformers might not be around yet, but when they are, it looks like they could be more versatile than anything in the cartoons.