DARPA and Other Programmable Matter Projects

The goal of Programmable Matter Program is to demonstrate a new functional form of matter, based on mesoscale particles, which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects upon external command. These 3D objects will exhibit all the functionality of their conventional counterparts.

Programmable Matter represents the convergence of chemistry, information theory, and control into a new materials design paradigm referred to as “InfoChemistry”—building information directly into materials

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One team from Harvard is working on a kind of “generalized Rubik’s Cube” that can fold into all kinds of shapes. Another is trying to order large strands of synthetic DNA to bind together in a “molecular Velcro.” An MIT group is building “’self-folding origami’ machines that use specialized sheets of material with built-in actuators and data. These machines use cutting-edge mathematical theorems to fold themselves into virtually any three-dimensional object.”

The Programmable Matter program is now approximately five months into its second phase, which is scheduled to last about 15 months. The first phase of the effort involved five teams, two from Harvard University, two from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and one from Cornell University. Zakin notes that all of the teams successfully met their goals and are all now working on phase two. The teams are made up of experts from a range of disciplines such as computer scientists, roboticists, biologists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, physicists and artists. Zakin describes the research on programmable matter as “the ultimate interdisciplinary endeavor.” Another important part of the program is that the five teams are collaborating with each other, not competing. This is because each team has its own strengths and weaknesses and they share information. The teams meet on a regular basis and present their results to each other to help facilitate the information sharing.

At the end of phase two, the teams must be able to assemble four or five three-dimensional solids of a specific size and shape from a set of building blocks. Zakin notes that not all of the building blocks have to be used to create a specific shape, but they must demonstrate the ability to build objects the size and shape of a tool. The teams must also demonstrate that when the building blocks form a shape, they can adhere with the strength of a standard industrial/engineering plastic.

Once programmable matter’s capabilities have been proven, phase three will begin looking at the different applications for the technology. This phase will focus on using the science for specific applications, either through this program or other DARPA efforts.

Zakin observes that much more can be done with the science of programmable matter. One possible direction for the technology is programming adaptability into the material itself. The Programmable Matter program is a first step, he explains. Adaptability, for example, could produce electronics that can cope with heat and dust in the desert and then shift to resist humidity and moisture in a jungle environment.

The team working with DNA is planning to use it as a “molecular Velcro.” [DNA Origami] The team’s scientists believe that it is necessary to get enough DNA on a surface to achieve adhesion. “DNA strands stick together. Each pair that sticks together is an adhesive. The trick is getting enough, and that means getting a density of DNA on a certain area,” he says. In the program’s first phase, the researchers demonstrated the highest density of DNA coverage on a surface ever achieved. Zakin says that this approach has potential applications in biological sciences and medicine.

To achieve the Programmable Matter vision, key technological breakthroughs will center on the following critical areas:

* Encoding information into chemistry, or fusing materials with machines.
* Fabrication of mesoscale particles with arbitrary complex shapes, composition, and function.
* Interlocking/adhesion mechanisms that are strong and reversible.
* Global assembly strategies that translate information into action.
* Mathematical theory for construction of 3D objects from particles

Intel is continuing to work with Claytronics which is a separate effort from the DARPA project.

DARPA also has the chembots program.

The goal of the Chemical Robots (ChemBots) Program is to create a new class of soft, flexible, mesoscale mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their dimensions and perform various tasks.

The program seeks to develop a ChemBot that can perform several operations in sequence:

* Travel a distance;
* Traverse an arbitrary-shaped opening much smaller than the largest characteristic dimension of the robot itself;
* Reconstitute its size, shape, and functionality after traversing the opening;
* Travel a distance; and Perform a function or task using an embedded payload.

This program creates a convergence between materials chemistry and robotics through the application of any one of a number of approaches, including gel-solid phase transitions, electro- and magneto-rheological materials, geometric transitions, and reversible chemical and/or particle association and dissociation.