Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) have admitted that their mega project of designing robots that can self-assemble is about to come to reality, though a few years away.
According to the MIT website, the robots could practically and economically assemble nearly anything, including things much larger than themselves, from vehicles to buildings to larger robots.
The new work is reported in the journal Nature Communications Engineering, in a paper by CBA doctoral student Amira Abdel-Rahman, Professor and CBA Director Neil Gershenfeld and three others.
“A fully autonomous self-replicating robot assembly system capable of both assembling larger structures, including larger robots, and planning the best construction sequence is still years away,” said Gershenfeld in a statement.
At the system’s center are voxels (a term borrowed from computer graphics), which carry power and data that can be shared between pieces.
The pieces form the foundation of the autonomous self-building robot, grabbing and attaching additional voxels before moving across the grid for further assembly.
Developing the proper level of intelligence for these systems is a big hurdle. Among other things, the robots need to determine how and where to build, when to begin building a new robot and just generally how to avoid bumping into each other in the process.
“When we’re building these structures, you have to build in intelligence. What emerged was the idea of structural electronics — of making voxels that transmit power and data as well as force.” the paper’s co-author, Gershenfeld, said.
Hardware issues remain, as well. The team is currently working on building stronger connectors to keep the voxels together.
While there has been increasing interest in 3-D-printed houses, today those require printing machinery as large or larger than the house being built. Again, the potential for such structures to instead be assembled by swarms of tiny robots could provide benefits. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also interested in the work for the possibility of building structures for coastal protection against erosion and sea level rise.
The work was supported by NASA, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, and CBA consortia funding.