Just What We Need--Hormonal Robots - InformationWeek

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Just What We Need--Hormonal Robots

Life imitates cartoons. Researchers at the University of SouthernCalifornia are building "transformers." Unlike the cartoon variety, which can switch from mechanized Japanese warriors to spaceships, these small transformers, called configurable robots (or conros), would be self-assembling little machines that could combine to take on different shapes depending on the task at hand.

USC's Information Sciences Institute sees a day when teams of 3- inch-long conros find and attach themselves to one another to tackle hazardous tasks--undersea, in outer space, or even in battlefield work. Each conro consists of several small motors, a computer chip, and the equipment to plug into other conros. The effort is being supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. At the moment, researchers are experimenting with ways to give the machines a semblance of intelligence for independent action.

How will conros work together to form, for instance, a large wheel or a snake? Electronic hormones. Wei-Min Shen, an assistant professor at USC, says an electronic analog to hormones could be passed from machine to machine. "It turns out to be a very powerful metaphor for distributed control of this network of little modules," Shen says.

The three-year project to create functioning conros is drawing to an end. Shen thinks it's possible that there will be commercial applications for conros within the next four years.

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