A research team led by Cornell University has demonstrated a bunch of modular robots that move together as one, but break apart and reform as a different shape that's better suited to the assigned task or to navigate obstacles.

The modular robot is actually made up of several cubed bots with wheels on four sides developed by the University of Pennsylvania. They attach to each other using magnets and to a central unit sporting cameras and a computer for processing the incoming data.

Each cube bot communicates with the central tower over Wi-Fi. The tower's computer runs software that includes perception algorithms for mapping and navigation and "a high-level planner to direct its actions and reconfiguration," all of which help the modular robot collective to autonomously navigate an environment and perform tasks.

The research team already had a database of 57 possible robot configurations that was populated with design ideas from students and from competitions. Those configurations include one called Proboscis (with an extended arm for grabbing), another called Scorpion (where cube-bots are arranged in a T-shape) and another dubbed Snake (with all the modules arranged in a single line). The system's library also includes 97 behaviors, including picking up or dropping something, reaching high and moving forward or back.

When activated, the modular robot dives into these configurations and behaviors to form a plan of attack to complete an assigned task.

The researchers say that the robots are the first capable of tackling tasks and reconfiguring their overall shape on their own, doing so by analyzing the task itself and by examining their environment. The robot system was put through its paces in three experiments.

First, the modular robot collective was tasked with finding, retrieving and delivering all pink and green objects to an area marked with a blue square. After exploring the space in Car mode and finding an object, the setup reshaped itself into the Proboscis form, grabbed the object from within a narrow space and then changed shape again to carry it to the designated area for dropoff.

For its second outing, the modular robot had to place a circuit board in a mailbox at the top of some stairs, and it took the robot 24 attempts to nail this task, with climbing the stairs proving particularly problematic. It was finally tasked with placing a postage stamp on the same mailbox.

"Modular robots in general are just fascinating systems, because you're not restricted by one shape, so there's a lot of flexibility," said project lead Hadas Kress-Gazit. "The hardware is still in research stages, but if we had commercial modular robots they would be very useful for anything where the environment changes significantly and the robot should adapt to its environment as well."

The project is detailed in a paper available in full from Cornell's digital repository. You can see the modular cube bot collective in action in the video below.