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Watch SRI's Nimble Microrobots Cooperate to Build Structures

Tiny robot swarms team up to create the future of manufacturing

2 min read
Watch SRI's Nimble Microrobots Cooperate to Build Structures
Photo: SRI International

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.

Photo: SRI International

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 ]

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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