Scientists have created a tiny robotic system that can go from solid to liquid and back again, reenacting a classic sci-fi story as they work.

It’s been 30 years since killer liquid metal robots entered our nightmares in 1991 with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The T-1000 robot that transformed this movie could overcome any obstacle while turning its parts into weapons at will.

Skynet and the robot apocalypse have haunted us ever since, and now an international team of researchers has finally brought us a real-world version of the T-1000, albeit one with more altruistic goals.

The team says it was inspired not by Hollywood, but by the humble sea cucumber, which can transition between soft and hard body states.

“Giving robots the ability to switch between liquid and solid states gives them more functionality,” he says. Chengfeng Panwho is an engineer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong led the study.

As if to gesture to Terminator-inspired night terrors, Pan and his colleagues demonstrate this increased functionality by placing one of their miniature robots in a simulated prison cell and showing how it can escape.

It might be a little hard to see what’s going on in the video above, but basically the robot liquefies itself, flows between bars and into a standby mold, where it cools, reforms itself, and then rises again. Granted, this run is a little less scary than the T-1000 because it needs a mold to regenerate itself, but it’s enough to thrill any Luddite.

It’s part of the show study was published Wednesday in Matter magazine.

Lead author Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon University said magnets make all this futuristic phase transition possible.

“The magnetic particles here have two roles… One is that they respond to a magnetic field that changes the material, so you can heat the material through induction and cause a phase change. But the magnetic particles also give robots mobility and movement in response to a magnetic field. the ability to do.”

The particles are embedded in gallium, a metal with a very low melting point of just 86 degrees Fahrenheit (about 30 Celsius), creating a substance that flows more like water than other phase-change materials, which are more viscous.

In tests, the mini robots were able to jump over obstacles, scale walls, split in half and put them all back together again while being controlled by magnets.

“We are now pushing this material system into more practical ways to solve some very specific medical and engineering problems,” Pan said.

In other demonstrations, robots were used to solder circuits, deliver drugs and remove a foreign object from a model stomach.

The researchers envision the system could perform repairs in hard-to-reach areas and act as a “universal screw” that melts into the screw socket and tightens without requiring any actual screws.

The team is particularly excited about the potential medical uses.

“Future work should further explore how these robots can be used in a biomedical context,” Majidi said. “The one-off demonstrations we’ve shown are proof-of-concept, but more research will be needed to explore how this could actually be used to deliver drugs or remove foreign objects.”

Hopefully, the list of foreign objects to be removed will never include weaponized miniature fusion robots, as they can be difficult to track and remove.

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