Microbots That Swarm to Build Structures

SRI International microfactory

At SRI International in Silicon Valley, researchers have developed perhaps the most impressive microbot army yet: the MicroFactory. It’s an ant colony made robotic, with half-millimeter machines zipping around to construct truly impressive structures. It could well be a glimpse at a future where 3-D printers give way to swarms of robots that cooperatively build stronger, more complex structures.

The setup of the MicroFactory is fairly straightforward. The foundation is a circuit board that generates a magnetic field. The little robots themselves are magnets, which a software program drives around by manipulating the field. Each robot is outfitted with what’s known as an end effector—the tool with which it manipulates its world—which varies depending on the job the bot is assigned.

So say you want to build a lattice. You’ve got robots that hold high-strength carbon rods vertically and some that hold them horizontally, and still others that apply dabs of glue. Working in concert, the robots can build out an intricate structure, some depositing glue while others stick in the rods, constantly gliding from the lattice back to material caches to resupply.

Sure, you can use a 3-D printer to build complex structures without having to mess with a magnetic field. But the beauty of the MicroFactory is its diversity of materials. Rods and glue are just the start: The robots can also schlep components like resistors and LEDs to build out far more complicated projects with embedded electronics.

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Images courtesy of wired.com