Researchers from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms are working on an exciting project to create robots that can self-assemble. The team acknowledges that the aim of creating an autonomous robot that builds itself is “years away,” but the research has produced positive results so far.
The system’s core is Voxels (a term borrowed from computers) that provide power and information that can be shared between the pieces. They form the base the machine is built on, grasping and attaching additional voxels before traversing the grid to allow further assembly.
Researchers note in an article released in Nature, “Our approach challenges the convention that larger constructions need larger machines to build them, and could be applied in areas that today either require substantial capital investments for fixed infrastructure or are altogether unfeasible.”
The development of the right degree of intelligence needed for these machines is a huge obstacle. In addition, the robots must determine where and what they will build, the best time to start building a new one, and the best way to keep from hitting each other in the process.
“When we’re building these structures, you have to build in intelligence,” the paper’s co-author, Neil Gershenfeld, says in a statement. “What emerged was the idea of structural electronics — of making voxels that transmit power and data as well as force.”
Hardware problems remain too. The team is working on creating stronger connectors to keep the voxels in sync.
In the end, the need for a system like this is evident once it is completed. The team suggests that using robots to identify the best design could reduce the time spent on prototyping. MIT mentions,
There has been a growing interest in 3D-printed houses, but they are currently dependent on printing machines as big as the building being constructed. Nevertheless, the potential of these structures to be built by a swarm of tiny robots may provide advantages. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also interested in studying building structures that provide coastal protection against erosion and rising sea levels.
NASA and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, are both involved in financing the project.