Over the past year or two, we've seen all kinds of creative robots and robot teams that are learning how to build things. Recently, we've highlighted Harvard's TERMES Project, and we're particular fans of this robot that builds ramps by tossing thousands of toothpicks and glue into a giant random pile.
SRI International has also been developing construction robots, but on a much smaller scale, with swarms of magnetically actuated microrobots that can work together to build macro-scale structures.
Magnetically controlled robots aren't a new idea, but generally, it's difficult to independently control more than one at a time, because any externally generated magnetic field equally affects all of the robots that it comes in contact with.
SRI has solved this problem by driving their robots around on circuit boards (including flexible ones) that can keep the magnetic fields localized. Not only are the robots very finely controllable, but they're fast: a robot that I'm guessing (based on the size of the dime it's next to) is about two millimeters in length travelling at 35 centimeters per second would be analogous to yours truly running at slightly under Mach 1. Impressive.
This robotic micro-factory technology is part of DARPA's Open Manufacturing Program, which seeks to "lower the cost and speed the delivery of high-quality manufactured goods" by "creating a manufacturing framework that captures factory-floor and materials processing variability and integrates probabilistic computational tools, informatics systems and rapid qualification approaches."
SRI's robots fit in due to their ability to autonomously and rapidly assemble very small things (like electronics) as well as relatively large things, like structures. The robots aren't doing anything that isn't already being done by more traditional autonomous systems, but the advantage here is that the microrobots aren't nearly as limited by workspaces (especially if you mount their build surface on a mobile base), are inherently more versatile, and can be assigned to collaborate in giant swarms.
[ SRI ]