Researchers from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms are working on an ambitious project, designing robots that efficiently self-assemble. The team admits the goal of an autonomous self-build robot is still “years away”, but work has so far yielded positive results.
At the center of the system are voxels (a term borrowed from computer graphics), which carry energy and data that can be shared between parts. The parts form the base of the robot, grabbing and attaching additional voxels before moving onto the grid for further assembly.
The researchers note in a related paper Posted in Nature“Our approach challenges the convention that bigger buildings require bigger machines to build them, and could be applied in areas that today require substantial capital investments for fixed infrastructure or are quite unachievable.”
Developing the right level of intelligence for these systems is a big hurdle. Among other things, robots need to figure out how and where to build, when to start building a new robot, and generally how to avoid bumping into each other in the process.
“When we build these structures, you have to integrate intelligence,” said paper co-author Neil Gershenfeld in a statement. “[W]What emerged was the idea of structural electronics – of making voxels that transmit power and data as well as force.
Hardware issues also remain. The team is currently working on building stronger connectors to hold the voxels together.
Ultimately, the desire for such a system – when completed – is clear. The team suggests that using robots to determine the optimal build could save a lot of prototyping time. MIT note,
Although there has been a growing interest in 3D printed houses, these today require printing machines as large or larger than the house being built. Again, the possibility that such structures are instead assembled by swarms of tiny robots could offer advantages. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also interested in work on the possibility of building coastal protection structures against erosion and sea level rise.
NASA and the US Army Research Laboratory helped fund the project.