Robots that change shape and even split into smaller parts to explore unfamiliar terrain could soon be feasible thanks to new algorithms designed to enable such metamorphic tricks.

Zack Butler and colleagues at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US, developed algorithms to control robots made from identical components, each capable of moving on their own but also able to attach to one another. As this is beyond current hardware, they constructed virtual modular bots and used a software simulator to test them.

The modular robot can move along as a complete unit, built up of around 100 smaller parts. But when faced with an impassable obstacle, some of these modules can detach and proceed as a smaller unit, or even on their own.

Once the obstacle has been passed, however, the smaller units will automatically recombine into the larger whole, enabling them to travel over different terrain once more.

More here.