US research institute SRI International has been at work for some time developing construction micro-robots on a tiny scale that work as a co-operative swarm to make macro structures.
The bots are really just magnets controlled by magnetic fields generated by a printed circuit board substrate.
Simple, low-cost materials allow the cost-effective production of large numbers of micro-robots that can handle a wide variety of solid and liquid materials – including electronics, SRI says.
The underlying circuit boards determine the direction they take and their speed – and they can move fast – up to 35 centimetres per second – climbing in any orientation, even on flexing surfaces.
They are controlled to run parallel tasks like an army of ants. Each identical bot is distinguished by its “end-effectors” – the tools that perform the specific tasks designated for each individual bot.
“Our vision is to enable an assembly head containing thousands of micro-robots to manufacture high-quality macro-scale products while providing millimetre-scale structural control,” SRI says. “For example, some micro-robots will carry components – electronic as well as mechanical – some micro-robots will deposit liquids, and others will perform in situ quality analysis.
“Mounted to a mobile robotic base, a microfactory will be able to build parts of practically any size.”
The video below shows them in operation in what is, in effect, a microfactory.
But now SRI has developed a way to make the micro-robots more self-sufficient, by fabricating their own tools as required.
Each of the bots is identical, except for the tools, or “end-effectors”, that allow them to perform their designated tasks.
So rather than have to construct thousands of specialised micro-bots, SRI has come up with a way for the bots themselves to set up a tool-shop to make the specialised end-effectors used by other bots.
They can also form into different arrays, joining together several micro-robots in specific shapes depending on the task required. The first half of the video below shows they way the micro-bots are corralled in an “incubator” that forms several up into different arrays.
The second part of the video shows a micro-bot equipping other micro-bots with specialised end-effectors.
The microfactory tool shop works in much the same way as would a tool shop in a macro factory, he says.
Instead of having to many special-purpose robots to complete tasks that may change, you just buy standardised robots, and outfit them with special purpose-tools that you make on-site.
It’s faster, cheaper, and much more efficient, Pelrine says.
SRI is also working on a new way of controlling magnetic micro robots using magnetic levitation that would allow the bots to be positioned much more accurately – at a resolution of 200 nanometres.
Pelrine foresees other uses for the technology beyond manufacturing, with the micro-robots integrated with other robotic systems, “’living’ inside larger robots, monitoring them and performing maintenance and repairs”.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.