MIT researchers seek to create robotic 'self-sculpting sand'
MIT has tested the potential of "smart sand" with these larger cubes with rudimentary microprocessors inside.
April 4th, 2012
04:01 PM ET

MIT researchers seek to create robotic 'self-sculpting sand'

By Doug Gross, CNN

It could be something out of "Harry Potter," or a scene from "Terminator 2" if you want to take it to a creepier place.

Take a box full of sand and tell it what you need - say a hammer, a ladder or a replacement for a busted car part. Bury a tiny model of what you need in the sand, give it a few seconds and - voila! - the grains of sand have assembled themselves into a full-size version of the model.

MIT robotics researchers say such a magical sandbox could be no more than a decade away.

A team from the school's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory says they've developed algorithms that could enable "smart sand" - essentially miniscule, simple robots that would communicate with each other about how to align together properly once they've been given a model to copy.

The team has already done limited testing with larger cubes - 10 millimeters wide with rudimentary microprocessors inside and magnets on four of their sides. The "robot pebbles" magnets are used not just to connect, but to communicate with each other and share power.

"The 'robot pebbles' are not going to turn into true 'smart sand' overnight - but it will happen ...," said Kyle Gilpin, a graduate student working on the project.

Gilpin, who authored the paper the team will present at next month's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, predicted it could take 10 years, but that "we'll see incremental improvements along the way."

The grains of "sand" would essentially work together like the block of stone a sculptor begins with. Once deployed, the grains needed to build an item would move into place, while those that aren't needed would simply fall away.

“Say the tire rod in your car has sheared,” Gilpin said. “You could duct tape it back together, put it into your system and get a new one.”

Once an item is no longer needed, the grains could be ordered to fall apart and get ready for the next project.

One of the main challenges at this point is getting enough computing power onto items so small. The "robot pebbles" now being tested each have a tiny microprocessor that can store just 32 kilobytes of program code and have two kilobytes of working memory.

But Gilpin said that's not a reason to lose hope.

"Consider how rapidly and dramatically computers have been miniaturized over the last 50 years," he said. "What used to
occupy an entire room now fits on a small fraction of a fingernail. We'll see the same advances applied to programmable matter systems as well."

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Filed under: Future • Innovation • Robots • Science • Tech
soundoff (68 Responses)
  1. Juda

    I saw a program on PBS in the start of the 90's. Panel of MIT, RIT, and a couple of others, about this stuff. I was impressed with what it could become and how it could bring the culture up. Now I'm older and wiser. My concern is who gets it, for how much, and how will it be used? If the Global Power Elite gets it then we know how it will be used. Anyone or anything or groups could be zapped out. Scientists need to ban together and on patents be sure that the inventions/innovations can only be used for non-destructive human ventures. This stuff could bring us Utopia or a hell much worse than the H-Bomb.

    July 22, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Reply
  2. Freddy Groggs

    I only wonder that they won't have legal issues such as murderers using this technology to "hide their weapons"!

    July 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  3. rcroeder

    the concept was done inthe movie Virtuosity from 1995, smart silicon nano bot reforming into anything

    July 18, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  4. Eric Abresch

    the Idea of microsand is a awesome one indeed. but I would like to have you people take it alot smaller How about a liquid metel that can change shape so it could be used to protect space vehicles kinda like a shield from radiation and micro meterorites. just a thought.

    July 10, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  5. Jack

    Good evening. Everyone is graciously invited to visit...

    June 15, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  6. Matt

    Didn't anybody watch the Stargate series? Replicators! ahhhh!!!!

    June 5, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • rcroeder

      Closer to the movie Virtuosity (1995)

      June 5, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
      • Matt

        yeah, at least the resemble Borg cubes...

        June 6, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Mobchannel

      Great concept.Atomic and molecular dimensions are the only limit. If we could find a way to make intelligent molecules like getting them to preferentially attach in some dimension , that would be it , computing is not going to help much it is going to be much of force field technology that would drive this sort of thing.

      June 7, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
      • Eric Abresch

        read mine i had the same Idea. Its a great Idea would help out alot in space structures. And you could actually build things in space without melting metal using oxygen here on earth.

        July 10, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  7. 4mojo

    All the poor people who look at innovations like this and thing 'dumb idea it will never work'. Who hurt you? How sad that you've lost the ability to see potential, opportunity, or even see the evolution of these ideas into something either totally successful, or at the very least, interesting.

    I remember when I was young enough to think I'd seen everything that the world had to offer, and had the perspective that I was surrounded by morons who clearly couldn't see the truth. Older and wiser, I'd say I've got so much more to see, but sadly I'm still seeing a lot of small minds.

    Brilliant tech, and something that has far more exciting possibilities than tire irons. 3D printing is attacking these problems from the other side, and sculpting particles like this could be a great complementary tech. The brains, so to speak, of a 3d printed part. Shades of Optimus Prime...

    June 2, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Reply
    • Deez

      Further, there was once a time when the idea of a computer was merely for basic operations for a very niche market. Today, try to find anything now that doesn't have a computer inside it.

      June 6, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
    • Jeff

      This tech is great. however, if they can program sand, why can't they pool their collective minds and come up with a way to get us off fossil fuels, or find a way to cure cancer on a molecular level. While I am excited by this, I think there are more important things to be discovered by people more intelligent than myself.

      June 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  8. DanW

    A more common term than 'Smart Sand', as well as much more interesting in my opinion, is 'Programmable Matter'. Bill Gates gave a talk on it at one point and discussed much better applications with micro electronics that were much more realistic than a tire iron. One of the applications was a cell phone that could transform shape into a tablet or even a headset with the press of a button. There were also discussions of its use in search and rescue operations when a building collapses where it could actually travel through the gaps in the rubble, find a person, and transform into a locator or communication device. Still along way off but much more interesting a concept than discussed in this article. Allot more information is available on youtube if you search for Programmable Matter.

    May 29, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  9. Tom

    My question is what will be the bounds of this technology? Like if you use it to create a hammer when yours breaks, then how much impact can it take before fracture? Also if you replace a car part with it how much heat can it absorb, and again what types of impacts can it displace? This seems like it would be awesome if it were to work, but i forsee a lot of hold backs in actually using it for important tasks.

    May 21, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
  10. MillenniumMan

    Is this maybe how the Ancient Egyptians lugged 100 ton blocks to build the Pyramids?

    May 12, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • Egyptian Xen0n

      when u read about the Ancients , u will figure out how the build the Pyramids

      May 19, 2012 at 5:31 am | Reply
    • Mike K.

      Don't be ridiculous. It was aliens.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  11. watchman5

    It is easier to see now that God could have created man from the dust/sand of the earth.

    May 12, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  12. oh noes!

    Golly, I hope my tire rod never goes out!

    May 3, 2012 at 10:01 am | Reply
  13. Winnetka Bails

    I think there is some required reading for people to do before they comment on this article... It's a couple of years old now but read " The Singularity is Near". This will give the readers a prespective on how fast these ideas, miniturization and costs can be reduced in a very short period of time.

    May 2, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  14. Lucas

    Posted on Valuable information and also exleeclnt model you got here! I would just like to thank you for sharing your thoughts and time into the stuff you post!! Thumbs up

    May 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  15. The Wondering Man

    Remember the small generator that worked by simple being spun around by the wheel of your bike when you rode your bike at night? It generated enough energy to give you light!!!! Can we spend out energy and money in creating the same concept only bigger in todays cars? Generating our own energy to stop depending in other countries and even our own political jerks!! Forget about sand sculpting robots MIT!!!

    May 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
    • Rob M

      We already have that. It is called an alternator. We also have cars that take advantage of going downhill to charge the hybrid variety of automobiles.

      May 3, 2012 at 1:19 am | Reply
  16. PJRG

    Funny how MIT comes out with this junk and people worship it.. Where's the economic viability? You would'nt spend $3,000.00 US on some miracle dust to repair a $75.00-$500.00 US bumper.

    May 1, 2012 at 2:40 am | Reply
    • Carlos

      I had to respond to this moron because well he is a moron. You forget much of the technology you use today was once a millions of dollars. It came down from the private sectors or government agencies that funded the projects. Touch screen, yeah apple was not the first. The touch screen was invented in 1965 by E.A. Johnson. Well look at that ( you tube video impersonation) took over 40 years before your little ipad could see the light of day and was efficient enough to even provide the products people divulge themselves in today. GPS? AI? Microwaves? all technologies that were expensive. The article did not state in 10 years consumers could buy it. But the government could sure use it in military applications and could also be used in private sectors. Wake up! people like you with simple minds,create simplistic responses. The reason societies around the world are suffering are because people like you wanted instant gratification. No one plans long term anymore. GO MIT P.S.
      ( Not a stab at apple they make good products, just proving a point)

      May 2, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply
      • john doe

        yup he's a moron..remember how much a VCR cost when the first came out? now I can by a DVD player at walmart for $20, I would kill for a job at MIT, and work on technology today that will help people in the future. it costs lots of money to develop tech that makes our life easier for bravo

        May 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
      • Jorge

        Yeah, when the plane was first invented, someone once said that it had no military value.

        May 3, 2012 at 10:18 am |
      • fabian

        samuel c samuel Posted on I am a nieraign that has just completed my secondary school level and would like to study Computer Engineering/Electronics Engineering in Korea through scholarship.this is because korea is the largest producing electronics and my parents are poor and can not afford the morney to sponsor my academic carrer so,how can i accomplish my dream? kindly reply.

        July 19, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  17. tcaros

    A bunch of carpet baggers and hucksters.

    I have some miracle oil that will cure all you ailments!

    April 29, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Reply
    • Trevor

      Are you accusing the the most prestegious tech school in the world with being snake oil salesman?

      April 30, 2012 at 8:43 am | Reply
  18. tcaros

    Now before you get all excited I grew up in the generation after space flight. They promised all kinds of stuff in the future.
    And do you know what? Toasters are still the same. You still have to vacuum the floors by hand and you still have to do the clothes, ironing and folding.

    Just because some Wahoo says "in Ten years we'll have tiny robots to make sand castles" doesn't mean diddly squat.

    April 29, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
    • Ted Striker

      You could always get you a Roomba to vacuum the floors, though agree with you on the other stuff. We really need the self-driving cars, there are pretty close technologies like blind-spot protection and automatic stop sensors, but way too many people are hurt or die in automobile accidents.

      April 30, 2012 at 12:40 am | Reply

      Not all toasters are the same, and there are robotic vacuum cleaners. Perhaps you ought to peek out from under your rock more often. As to flying cars they are on the market as well, however I fear releasing them into a public that has sufficient dificulty navigating in 2 dimensions that adding a third will only overload their capabilities further.

      April 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Reply
    • Chris

      Innovation on such things has been much more on miniaturization and perfection, not what was being hyped at the time. The real focus of technology has been in products and areas that didn't even exist back then. The future is always more practical than you think.

      May 29, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  19. oldtimeadventures

    Utility Fog! JoSH was right.

    April 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  20. Stargage Fan

    Quick – call all the Stargate SG teams & have them bring P90's – the Replicators are here! 🙂

    April 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
    • Ted Striker

      Give me a P90 with laser sight and suppressor and I am lighting people up in close quarters in BF3. Ridiculous you can mow 3 people down at once, all on the move lol.

      April 30, 2012 at 12:45 am | Reply
  21. wavejump1100

    exactly what is going to hold the sand together? no way a bunch of sand will be able to serve as a tie rod on my car!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Reply
    • PeratFlexibilityEnvelope

      In the smart sand the pebbles ( it's not quite a grain yet 🙂 are kept together by electropermanent magnets,
      and they are actually quite strong, and scale well with size.

      But you are correct in your question exactly what is going to hold the sand together?
      The connector that keeps the modules (the pebbles in this case) together is a major research problem
      in Self-reconfiguring modular robotics, which is the research area that the smart sand is a part of.

      I have made a list of all potential requirements and right now it is at a daunting 49 check it out here

      April 7, 2012 at 1:44 am | Reply
      • tcaros

        I wouldn't give you 5 dollars to research this ridiculous idea.

        How do you feel wasting taxpayer money on phoney research?

        April 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Chris

      Magnetism, and even mechanical hooks. Lots of ways. Chemical bonds could even be used.

      May 29, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Reply
  22. Bob

    BREAKING NEWS: "MIT robotics researchers say such a magical sandbox could be no more than a decade away." A decade?? REALLY?!?! Why dont you file this story and repost it in 9 years and 50 weeks...

    April 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
    • J

      Innovation is news. One idea fuels another. Understanding how the world is evolving can help you to anticipate how you'll need to evolve to keep up. Try to be inspired.

      April 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • Israel

      Chrissy,WOW! Thank you again for the wonderful photo shoot. You catupred some truly precious photos of all of us. The pics of Claire and Quinn are just amazing! We had such a fun time and are SOO pleased with how the photos have turned out! Can't wait to see the rest of them!!Best,The Marcello Family

      July 19, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  23. testingstuffformyblogg

    I interviewed Kyle Gilpin at ICRA 2010 about his work with the robot pebble, which is the "grain" in the "smart sand"
    This interview is part of the Flexible Elements podcast series, focusing on Self-reconfiguring modular robotics, at IT Conversations

    April 5, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Reply
  24. TwoCents

    I wonder if people in the past complained as much as some of the people on here do about exciting new technology. For some reason, people are so uninspired by technology these days that they take it for granted. What was science fiction 50 years ago is reality today; and sure there were skeptics, but for the most part general tech has made our lives easier and allowed our capabilities to expand.

    If you can't see past the few stated uses that the writer of the article mentioned and believe that all this idea would ever be able to accomplish is create a hammer than let me direct you to the nearest rock where you should feel more comfortable living under from now on.

    April 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  25. PDX Bob

    ... and the point? Now we can make hammers that actually justify what the military pays? what possible advantage could their be to making a "busted car part" from highly intelligent miniture robots that cost hundreds of dollars each?

    April 5, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • PeratFlexibilityEnvelope

      They will actually be very cheep, because we make many identical modules, and let them assemble themselves to what wee need.
      ( and many other reasons to but that is another story) And things that never brake will be very valuable indeed.

      April 7, 2012 at 1:48 am | Reply
  26. midasgem

    Cool now you can replace everyone in congess.

    April 5, 2012 at 1:30 am | Reply
    • Richp

      Just don't use the ones in there as of each is bad enough, two would be worse.

      April 5, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
  27. Lawrence

    So, what happens when someone puts Playboy magazine in the sandbox?

    April 5, 2012 at 12:18 am | Reply
    • Bob

      um...sand sticks to the pages...

      April 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • Molly

      Posted on LOL! He looks mortified. Actually, he looks like one of the Merry Men from Robin Hood, so that's not too bad, is it? Let him loose on the nierhboghood and he'll come back with some bags of gold. And in this economy . . .I'll have to send in one of my many craft fails. Sadly, they far outweigh my craft wins.deirdre’s last blog post..

      August 22, 2012 at 3:55 am | Reply
  28. lylemsharp

    Each device would have to smaller than any previously conceptualized computing device to work as a replacement for a car part or even as a hammer. Magnetism on the macro scale is far too weak to hold them together against large mechanical stresses. My bet is that this technology goes absolutely nowhere for decades.

    April 4, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Reply
    • wavejump1100

      exactly what i was thinking

      April 6, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Reply
      • Alejandro

        Potrebbe anche non essere aafttfo male ma voglio aspettare qualche news in pi anche per la trama ed il game play. Comunque devo dire che mi sembra che qualcosa si stia muovendo.

        April 30, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Winnetka Bails

      Nanobot can do that now.

      May 2, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Reply
      • Christian

        Hello Beach Backgrounds.I like your picurtes very much. And i want to use it in my picurte-collage. Idea of collage:two ships with my face and my husband face will arrive to island of love.Please let me know can i use this photo in my collage?Thank YouIrina

        August 19, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  29. Russ

    I used to believe that science would always make life better. In many ways that is true, but at the same time something is lost. Take cell phones for instance. While they are great, they are also responsible for less communication, fact to face, with those we love. So what will this technology do for us as a whole? The jury is out on that. However, one thing is true. Once the cat is out of the bag, there will be no putting him back in.

    April 4, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Reply
    • Bella

      We had a GREAT dinner tongiht and it was super easy! Did you know that Publix will steam shrimp for you when you buy it? So tongiht, I had them steam 1/2 pound of shrimp with garlic butter. Came home and chopped up fresh mushrooms, zucchini, and red onions and sauteed them in light olive oil then sauteed some grape tomatoes too. Served up with angel hair pasta and a garlic butter sauce YUMMMMMM

      April 30, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  30. orangeblossom

    They can build a bridge to the moon wiith this crafty technology.

    April 4, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply
    • tcaros

      Do you really believe these hucksters?

      First off here's some education. 1) Researchers don't get funds unless they have something exciting to announce. B) They lie about stuff all the time to get funds.

      April 29, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  31. Chicago Ted

    If they do get this right it could be the ultimate in green tech.

    April 4, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply

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