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These tiny, wearable robots can cling to your clothes and drive around your body

They may one day assemble into a screen on your arm.

Wearables generally stay in place, like on your wrist or clipped under clothes, but they won’t always be so stationary.

At a conference in Tokyo on Monday, researchers from MIT and Stanford shared new miniature on-body robots they’ve developed, called Rovables. The tiny robots crawl vertically on unmodified clothing, meaning there’s no need to wear a special shirt to have them drive on you.

The robots are held in place and able to scale garments with the help of magnetic gripping wheels that sit on either side of the fabric. Using sensors and artificial intelligence, the mini-rovers are partially autonomous. The researchers describe a scenario where the on-body robot crawls into your pocket when it’s not needed.

What are they for?

The researchers propose a number of possible use cases: A fleet of the robots could assemble on a wearer’s arm to create a display to watch video on the subway or tap a person on the shoulder when there’s new email. Or the wearable robots might roll up your sleeve or group into a safety light on your back when you’re riding a bicycle.

For the rovers to work well, they need to be able to navigate in 3-D space. The researchers have a model for how it might work, but have yet to build a micro-controller with enough processing power to handle the complex algorithms required for that level of path-planning.

The clothing-clinging robots have onboard batteries that, at the moment, will stay charged for 45 minutes at full capacity before needing more power. But the researchers say that if the robots aren’t moving all the time, the battery life should extend for hours longer. And they’ve designed the Rovables to charge wirelessly.

While Rovables are only a lab-based project at the moment, they do signal a future in which robots may become so ubiquitous they’re crawling all over us. But for now, even those who do buy wearable tech often end up leaving it in the drawer.

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