Daniela Rus's Robotic Sand

Grains of Sand That Think
A cluster of Rus's pebble-size robots Photograph by Jesse Burke for Bloomberg Businessweek

History holds lessons, even for those designing futuristic robots. Daniela Rus, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found inspiration in Michelangelo’s statue of David. “David came out of the marble, and we thought we could also make things appear out of a block,” she says.

That germ of an idea inspired Rus, a 2002 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award, to begin work on a project that will eventually allow someone to reach into a bag of sand and pull out any device or structure imaginable. It’s like Harry Potter meets The Matrix, since the “bag of sand” is actually a collection of tiny robots. The robots can sense their neighbors, receive commands, and attach to each other to form objects.

The idea is that workers—especially those in remote or extreme conditions, such as scientists in Antarctica—could leave behind bulky toolboxes and instead bring along the high-tech sand. When a tool is needed, whether it be an adjustable wrench or a screw, they could toss a small model of the object into a bag containing a clump of sand or transmit electronic blueprints to it. The smart sand grains would communicate with one another and magnetically form into the shape within seconds. Once the tool is no longer needed, the sand could be reused. “This could have a dramatic impact on building and manufacturing of complex devices,” says Robert Wood, founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory.

The project has a long way to go, but Rus, 48, already has a working prototype. At this point she has about 50 robotic blocks. They’re relatively large—about two-fifths of an inch on a side—but she’s gotten them to form geometric shapes. Since the components are programmable, she can also create small humanoid figures that eventually should be able to move. Her current research focuses on making the robotic blocks much smaller by shrinking the magnet and electronics that each contains.

Rus developed a passion for robots watching the sci-fi TV series Lost in Space while growing up in Romania. “I loved the robot,” she says. “The fact that there was a machine that could interact with you, and that could give you a warning—as a child, you get fascinated.” When her family emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s, Rus followed in her father’s footsteps and studied computer science. Her Ph.D. thesis at Cornell University focused on how robotic hands manipulate objects. At MIT she decided “to democratize access to robots” and, along with the high-tech sand, is building technology that would let non-roboticists design robots for specialized tasks, such as clearing a blocked drain.

Robots that help with everyday tasks already grace the building where Rus works. Several water a small tomato garden, and another named Shady crawls along a glass wall holding a little umbrella to keep the glare off researchers’ computer screens. Older robots sit unused in Rus’s office, including one that can organize papers into neat piles. “Given the state my desk is in, I should use it,” she says.

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