Scientists have created a tiny robotic system that can transition from solid to liquid and back again. It’s been 30 years since the classic sci-fi movie, ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’, introduced us to the shape-shifting T-1000 robot. Now, an international team of researchers has given us a real-world version of a T-1000.
The team was inspired by the humble sea cucumber, which can transition between soft and rigid body states. Chengfeng Pan, an engineer at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and the study’s leader, said: “Giving robots the ability to switch between liquid and solid states endows them with more functionality.”
The team demonstrated this increased functionality by placing one of their miniature robots in a simulated jail cell and showing how it might escape. It melted itself down to a liquid, flowed between the bars and into a waiting mold where it cooled, reformed itself and then popped back up.
The study was published in the journal Matter. Senior author Carmel Majidi from Carnegie Mellon University said magnets make all of this futuristic phase transitioning possible. The particles are embedded in gallium, which has a very low melting point, creating a substance that flows more like water than other phase-changing materials.
In tests, the mini robots were able to jump over obstacles, scale walls, split in half and re-merge all while being magnetically controlled. They were also used to solder circuits, deliver medication and clear a foreign object from a model stomach.
The researchers envision the system being able to conduct repairs in hard-to-reach spaces and serving as a “universal screw”. They are particularly excited about the potential medical uses.
Hopefully the list of foreign objects that need removal won’t ever include weaponized miniature melting robots, as they might prove difficult to track down and extract.