MIT research team builds blocks that can jump, leap, roll and join

M-Blocks can jump and snap into place all by themselves.

Following up on a self-assembling robot project that kicked off in 2013, researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have given these climbing, leaping and rolling M-Blocks the ability to communicate with one another.

Six years after researchers at MIT began developing self-assembling blocks -- "M-Blocks" -- that could climb onto and around one another, jump through the air, and roll across the ground, the team announced that they have succeeded in giving the devices the ability to communicate with one another using a "barcode-like" method.

With an identifier on each face of the block, the cubes are able to recognize each other and move in sync to complete basic tasks like creating a line. The M-Blocks stick together via magnets placed on each face and move thanks to "mass inside of them which they 'throw' against the side of the module, which causes the block to rotate and move."

Though the behavior of the cubes is still relatively primitive, the tech behind it is highly complex and the team imagines a wide variety of possible applications, including gaming, healthcare, inspection and disaster response situations. For instance, MIT explained that in the future, firefighters might be able to toss these blocks on the ground near a burning building where the cubes can assemble themselves into a staircase for emergency response teams to climb up.

"The unique thing about our approach is that it's inexpensive, robust, and potentially easier to scale to a million modules," said John Romanishin, a CSAIL PhD student working on the project.

Compared to similar projects which use robotic arms to move device units around or communicate via infrared light or radio waves, the M-Block system and operation is quite simple; from the outside, they look just like cubes.

The next step of the project for the team is to create bigger swarms by using more blocks.