Scientists have created a tiny robotic system that can go from solid to liquid and back again, bringing a classic piece of science fiction to life while they’re at it.
It’s been 30 years since liquid metal killer robots entered our nightmares thanks to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. That film’s shape-shifting T-1000 robot could seemingly overcome any obstacle while transforming parts of himself weaponized at will.
The specter of Skynet and the robot apocalypse have haunted us ever since, and now an international team of researchers has finally given us a real-life version of a T-1000, albeit with more altruistic goals.
The team says they weren’t inspired by Hollywood, but by the humble sea cucumber, which can transition between soft and stiff body states.
“Giving robots the ability to switch between liquid and solid state gives them more functionality,” says Chengfeng panan engineer from the Chinese University of Hong Kong who led the study.
As if to nod to Terminator-inspired night terrors, Pan and his colleagues demonstrate this increased functionality by placing one of their miniature robots in a simulated prison cell and showing how it could escape.
It might be a little hard to see what’s happening in the video above, but basically the robot melts into a liquid, flows between the bars and into a waiting mold where it cools, re-forms and then reappears. Admittedly, this escapee is a little less terrifying than a T-1000 since it needs a mold ready to put together, but it’s still enough to agitate any Luddite.
The demonstration is part of a study published Wednesday in the journal Matter.
Lead author Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon University said magnets make this whole futuristic phase transition possible.
“The magnetic particles have two roles here… The first is that they make the material sensitive to an alternating magnetic field, so you can, by induction, heat the material and cause the phase change. But the magnetic particles also give robots mobility and the ability to move in response to the magnetic field.”
The particles are embedded in gallium, which is a metal with a very low melting point of just 86 degrees Fahrenheit (about 30 degrees Celsius), creating a substance that flows more like water than other change materials. phase, which are more viscous.
In testing, the mini robots were able to jump over obstacles, climb walls, split in two, and merge again while being magnetically controlled.
“Now we are pushing this material system more practically to solve some very specific medical and technical problems,” Pan said.
In other demonstrations, the robots were used to solder circuits, administer drugs and remove a foreign object from a model stomach.
The researchers envision the system being able to make repairs in hard-to-reach spaces and serve as a “universal screw”, which melts into a screw socket and solidifies without any actual screwing required.
The team is particularly excited about the potential medical uses.
“Future work should further explore how these robots could be used in a biomedical context,” Majidi said. “What we’re showing are just one-off demonstrations, proofs of concept, but a lot more study will be needed to dig deeper into how this might actually be used for drug delivery or to remove foreign objects.”
Hopefully, the list of foreign objects that need to be removed will never include weaponized miniature fusion robots, as they might prove difficult to track down and extract.