Robots now can make large structures of small pieces

Robots now can make large structures of small pieces

Systems of tiny robots may someday build high-performance structures, from airplanes to space settlements.

Today’s commercial aircraft are typically manufactured in sections, often in different locations — wings at one factory, fuselage sections at another, tail components somewhere else — and then flown to a central plant in huge cargo planes for final assembly.

But what if the final assembly was the only assembly, with the whole plane built out of a large array of tiny identical pieces, all put together by an army of tiny robots?

That’s the vision that graduate student Benjamin Jenett, working with Professor Neil Gershenfeld in MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), has been pursuing as his doctoral thesis work. It’s now reached the point that prototype versions of such robots can assemble small structures and even work together as a team to build up a larger assemblies.

The new work appears in the October issue of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, in a paper by Jenett, Gershenfeld, fellow graduate student Amira Abdel-Rahman, and CBA alumnus Kenneth Cheung SM ’07, PhD ’12, who is now at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where he leads the ARMADAS project to design a lunar base that could be built with robotic assembly.

“This paper is a treat,” says Aaron Becker, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, who was not associated with this work. “It combines top-notch mechanical design with jaw-dropping demonstrations, new robotic hardware, and a simulation suite with over 100,000 elements,” he says.

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Credit: “Assembler robots make large structures from little pieces”, David L. Chandler, MIT News