Closeup of a “smartile” – smart active particle – showing the two 3D-printed arms, light sensor, and motor. (Photo: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech)

Researchers built robots entirely from smaller robots known as smarticles, unlocking the principles of a potentially new locomotion technique. The smarticles (smart active particles) can do just one thing: flap their two arms. But when five of these smarticles are confined in a circle, they begin to nudge one another, forming a system that can move by itself.

Ultimately, the behavior of the group could provide a new locomotion and control approach for small robots that could potentially change shapes. The battery-powered smarticles have motors, simple sensors, and limited computing power. They can change their location only when they interact with other devices while enclosed by a ring.