CAMBRIDGE, Masss. (CBS Connecticut) – Call it the first ever robotic flash mob. Researchers at Harvard University say they created a huge swarm of tiny robots and made them take on different three-dimensional shapes.

Nicknamed Kilobots, the machines are about the width of a quarter and stand as tall as a penny placed on its edge. The scientists used infrared lights and vibration motors to direct them into various formations.

Michael Rubenstein, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and lead researcher for the Kilobot project, tells Live Science the tiny machines mimic the behavior of ants, bees and other insects that work together to build structures.

“In the future, we’d like [the Kilobots] to do something functional, but for now, they’re just a research platform,” he said.

The bots could one day be used to literally transform themselves into common tools, like wrenches or screwdrivers.

And they are surprisingly easy to make. The parts cost about $14 per Kilobot and the researchers were able to assemble one in just five minutes.

They could become common cargo on space missions.

“If an astronaut goes to Mars, they’re going to bring all their tools with them,” Rubenstein said. “Traditionally, they’d bring a huge toolbox with all the tools they need. But imagine if instead they can just bring a little box of robots and make any tool that they want out of these robots.”

The research is published in the journal Science.

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