Researchers at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms are working on an ambitious project, designing robots that effectively self-assemble. The team admits that the goal of an autonomous self-building robot is still “years away,” but the work has thus far demonstrated positive results.
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 robot, grabbing and attaching additional voxels before moving across the grid for further assembly.
The researchers note in an associated paper published in Nature, “Our approach challenges the convention that larger constructions need larger machines to build them, and could be applied in areas that today either require substantial capital investments for fixed infrastructure or are altogether unfeasible.”
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,” the paper’s coauthor, Neil Gershenfeld, says in a release. “[W]hat emerged was the idea of structural electronics — of making voxels that transmit power and data as well as force.”
Hardware issues remain, as well. The team is currently working on building stronger connectors to keep the voxels together.
Ultimately, the desire for such a system – when completed – is clear. The team suggest that using the robots to determine the optimal build could save on a lot of time spent prototyping. MIT notes,
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.
NASA and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have participated in funding the project.