It might not bring to mind the shapeshifting T-1000 just yet, but researchers are taking a step forward with a modular robotics system that utilizes foam to build and reshape new robot bodies. Informally dubbed "FoamBot" by its creators at the University of Pennsylvania, the system uses a series of motorized, interconnectable modules called CKBots as a skeleton. These modules arrange themselves into the desired configuration, and a human operator then uses a mobile cart to spray the modules with polyurethane foam, creating the new body shape. After the foam hardens, the new remote-operated robot rises to life. They researchers have already used the system to build both a mobile quadruped and a slinky snake-style beast.
CKBots were also at the heart of a previous project where a robot that had been blown apart reassembled itself, and are being used as building blocks in FoamBot because of their broad utility. The researchers envision the FoamBot system as being ideal for "unknown challenge missions" such as space exploration, where a robot could be deployed without a sense of all the tasks it would need to accomplish, and create new body types on the fly as needed. FoamBot could also be used to control the environment in crisis situations — creating a permanent foam doorstop, for example — as well as help with the removal of needles or other hazardous waste. But while researchers have pegged different movement types as something to potentially explore next, it's another area they're considering that has us excited: a FoamBot system that can complete the foam-spraying creation process autonomously, without human participation. Check out the video below to see the system in action.