I just returned from an amazing meeting in Stuttgart with an amazing group of people: the project kick-off meeting for the Symbrion project. So what is Symbrion and what are we trying to achieve? Well, the idea is to build a swarm of mobile robots that can autonomously self-assemble into an artificial organism in which each individual robot becomes - in effect - a cell in a kind of artificial multi-cellular organism. The idea of self-assembling robots is not new, but in Symbrion the robots will be able to function as a swarm but then, if the situation demands, self-assemble into a 3 dimensional organism; then if required disassemble and form into a different kind of 3D organism. Imagine the swarm coming to a barrier too high to cross then autonomously forming an 'organism' to climb over the wall, then disassembling and reassembling into a different morphology to, for instance, collectively transport an object too large for a single robot to carry. In this way the Symbrion organism will be able to morph between different 3D forms as required by the situation.
No surprisingly, Symbrion is an extremely challenging project with very tough technical milestones. Our first task is to design and build the Symbrion robots - each robot will need to operate autonomously and have its own power, computation, sensing and motors for mobility but - in addition - have the ability to physically dock with other Symbrion robots on several sides. Furthermore the docking mechanism will need to be motorised so that once attached several robots will be able to bend in 3D. Thus a 2D swarm will be able to self-assemble into a 2D planar structure but then, once assembled, lift itself into a 3D shape - for instance from a X shape into a 4 legged walker.
Postscript: following the London press launch ITN posted the TV interview onto YouTube, see Robots with a mind of their own.