New Mergeable Nervous System Robots Can Share a Brain

Scientists develop the first robots capable of merging into a single-minded unit.

It sounds like something out of sci-fi, but scientists have just published a study in Nature announcing the development of the first autonomous robots that can merge their central processing units (CPUs) to create single a “hive” mind. Think the Borg in Star Trek TNG, or the bot swarms of the Matrix trilogy. The purpose of these new robots is, of course, not so diabolical. The idea is that they’re able to arrange themselves on the fly into different configurations for different tasks, and to suit different environments. Plus, they’re too cute to be evil.

Two bots and their ball (M. DORIGO AND NITHIN MATHEWS)

Prior to this breakthrough from Belgium’s Université Libre de Bruxelles, robots could cooperate, but that was “a little bit like if we had a bunch of people joining together to do something,” according to study coauthor Marco Dorigo. Each of those previous robots had its own sensors and CPUs, or “nervous system,” along with a pre-determined shape. As such, the study notes, a team of “modular robots lack the essential ingredient that enables complex sensorimotor responses in higher order animals, namely a nervous system that spans the whole body and transforms a composite system into a single, holistic entity.”

The new robots are mergeable nervous system (MNS) devices. Once merged as a group, one robot serves as a single “brain unit” and has access to all of the individual robots’ sensors and actuators, allowing the group to behave as a unified, fluid organism. (Each robot also retains an awareness of its own hardware.) And since the robots communicate wirelessly via WiFi, they don’t even need to be touching, allowing the creation of all sorts of arrangements.

In this video, you can see the MNS robots gather and then disperse into a variety of shapes. The red ones are the brain units.


Even more impressive, a group — having just one “mind,” after all — can cohesively respond to an external stimulus. In this video, a stimulus approaches individual units at first, causing them to point out the threat to each other. Then the little green bully goes after merged groups.


Groups are also self-aware to a degree, capable of diagnosing unit failure thanks to a “heartbeat protocol”:

Heartbeats, that is, periodic signals sent to indicate normal operation, are generated by the brain unit and sent through the robot nervous system at a fixed frequency. The absence of a heartbeat from a parent robotic unit tells a child robotic unit that its parent unit is faulty, while the absence of an acknowledgment from a child robotic unit tells the parent unit that its child unit is faulty.

When a fault is detected, the group can heal itself.


At this point, the MNS bots attach to each other in just two dimensions via simple, rigid connectors. The study’s authors intend to next develop a more fluid connection capability that allows the robots to arrange themselves in three dimensions, and with flexible joints.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

How KGB founder Iron Felix justified terror and mass executions

The legacy of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who led Soviet secret police in the "Red Terror," still confounds Russia.

Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Felix Dzerzhinsky led the Cheka, Soviet Union's first secret police.
  • The Cheka was infamous for executing thousands during the Red Terror of 1918.
  • The Cheka later became the KGB, the spy organization where Russia's President Putin served for years.
Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Brain study finds circuits that may help you keep your cool

Research by neuroscientists at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory helps explain how the brain regulates arousal.

Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP/ Getty Images
Mind & Brain

MIT News

The big day has come: You are taking your road test to get your driver's license. As you start your mom's car with a stern-faced evaluator in the passenger seat, you know you'll need to be alert but not so excited that you make mistakes. Even if you are simultaneously sleep-deprived and full of nervous energy, you need your brain to moderate your level of arousal so that you do your best.

Keep reading Show less