03/04/2012 11:29 BST | Updated 03/06/2012 10:12 BST

Robot Cubes Can Automatically Replicate 3D Objects

Imagine designing a prototype toy car on a computer, reaching over into a box of 'sand' and pulling out the freshly assembled model.

That's just what the researchers think could be possible if a new project from the United States comes to fruition.

Researchers at MIT have created a tiny robot cube that, together with a few dozen of its pals, can replicate a nearby object - on their own.

The robots take the form of small, 10mm cubes filled with permanent electro-magnets.

When they're placed near a 3D model they collectively assess the shape based on how many cubes are nearby.

The technique means that no one cube maps the entire object, and no computer is needed to organise them. Instead they build up a picture of the obstacle together, and then send messages to their nearby cubes to self-organise into a replicated version of the model - using magnets to bond together.

The scientists involved think the ingenious robots could be used to prototype gadgets or build replacement parts without the need for a 3D printer.

To do that the robots would have to be orders of magnitude smaller than they currently are - but the scientists are confident they can make it happen.

Whether or not those people who fear the inevitable robot apocalypse are happy about that is neither here nor there.