Micro-robots make their own tools to use in microfactories
Swarms of tiny automated bots working together co-operatively like ants could be a cost-effective way to manufacture much larger structures and even to 'live' within other robots, maintaining and repairing them.
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”.