The US Navy is soliciting proposals for program that’s intended to develop a swarm of tiny robots that are capable of manufacturing complex objects, potentially including other robots. If you let your imagination go berserk this may sound like a precursor to some sort of unstoppable robot uprising, but that’s just fiction. And why would we waste our time talking about fictional robot uprisings or whatever when the real robots themselves are so much more interesting? Here’s what the US Navy wants:
Develop a swarm of micro-robotic fabrication machines that will enable the manufacture of new materials and components. A micro-robot swarm should be able to perform material synthesis and component assembly, concurrently. The micro-robots could be designed to perform basic operations such as pick and place, dispense liquids, print inks, remove material, join components, etc. Examples of complex material systems of potential interest include but are not limited to: multi-functional materials, programmable materials, metamorphic materials, extreme materials, heterogeneous materials, synthetic materials, etc.
Basically, it’s one of those DARPA-esque “here’s some crazy thing we want, now go make it happen” things. And it’s actually crazier than it sounds, since “micro” is a bit misleading: what the Navy is really looking for are robots that are capable of manipulating “nano- and micron-scale building blocks.” So these robots would be really, really small, and there’d need to be a whole heap of them cooperating and doing different jobs in the right places and in the right order. All right there, on your desk. You’d just dump out a bunch of these itty bitty robots, tell them you need a new cellphone or whatever, and they’d get busy and whip up a new one for you right there while you watch.
Unsurprisingly, we’ve got a little ways to go before you’ll be able to buy your own jar of magic robodust. The Navy solicitation is in three phases, with phase I being a proof of concept, and it’s going to take some work to even get that far. But micro, nano, and swarm robots are all a reality already, so now that the government has decided to throw a bunch of money at the problem, it’s just going a matter of time before all the little pieces get put together and start working for us.
Image of Alice swarmbots, from EPFL