The end of the world is just around the corner. MIT researchers designed robots capable of building anything, even larger versions of themselves. The Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) presented a modular robotic system capable of serial assembly based on primitive building blocks.
The proposal of the CBA researchers is based on years of studies and consists of tiny assembly robots known as voxels that can move independently through a mesh. Each voxel has a plastic structure and magnets to join more pieces.
One of the most important characteristics of these blocks is that can carry power and data to other parts. The researchers say that the small robots could build more complex structures capable of lifting, moving and handling materials, including the voxels themselves. In the not too distant future, assembly robots would replace the fixed arms found in car, aircraft and other industries.
MIT robots are inspired by nature
The MIT project was published in an article in the journal Nature, where the operation of these robots is explained in depth. According to the researchers, the robotic swarm is inspired by naturemainly in self-replication and hierarchy.
This work is based on years of research and development of robotics applied to the manufacturing and packaging industry. While swarms have proven their efficiency on several fronts, none of the current systems offer self-replication or hierarchy. MIT’s proposal is to create a system based on building blocks, where the blocks can be put together and reconfigured when necessary.
One voxel can take another using connection points at one end and assemble another structure. Subsequently, both can work to create a larger robot that can perform complex tasks. The researchers developed software that receives a description of the object to be built and translates it to tell the voxels where to place the blocks.
Robotic swarms aren’t ready yet
The first tests of the MIT robotic swarm are positive, although there is still a lot of work ahead. The main hurdle for voxels is the connectors, since they don’t support much weight.
The system shown uses magnetic connections between the voxels. These are sufficient to demonstrate assembly and robotic locomotion, but joints with improved stiffness and strength will be required for the continued behavior of the metamaterial in higher-performance structures.
Another problem to overcome will be the creation of decentralized algorithms and scalable compilers. Although the algorithms worked flawlessly in the demos, the researchers believe they are not optimal for larger systems. Also it will be necessary to improve collision detection and route planning to reduce construction times.
Robots that build themselves to create complex structures are still some way off, although their creators already anticipate their potential. The systems could build large structures, such as planes or cars. The researchers work closely with companies in various industries, as well as NASA and the US Army.