Assembler Robots Build Complicated Structures Out of Small Identical Pieces

MIT Researchers believe that these robots could someday be useful in deep space exploration or when building planes.
Fabienne Lang
Prototype assembler robotsBenjamin Jenett/MIT News

Airplanes are typically built piece by piece, with different parts brought in from separate locations. After being flown in on a cargo plane, these pieces are finally assembled. It's a long and slow process. 

Now imagine a group of tiny robots working together to assemble these identical pieces in one place — a swifter and smoother approach.

This is precisely what MIT researchers, Benjamin Jenett, and Professor Neil Gershenfeld from the Institute's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) have been working on. 


A new assembly method

The team has put together a new type of assembly system where small robots work collaboratively to build large, and sometimes complicated structures from small identical pieces. 

Gershenfeld described it as, "What’s at the heart of this is a new kind of robotics, that we call relative robots." 

Assembler Robots Build Complicated Structures Out of Small Identical Pieces
Experiments demonstrating relative robotic assembly of 1D, 2D, and 3D discrete cellular structures. Source: MIT News

As explained by Gershenfeld, up until now, there have primarily been two types of robotics. One category is made up of costly custom components that are built for specific uses — for example, factory assembly robots. The other category is made up of inexpensive, mass-produced parts that offer a much lower performance rate. 

What the team is now offering is a new type of robotics, which adds a third category. 

These are less complicated than the first option and more capable than the second. With this combination, they have the potential to revolutionize large-scale production systems, such as building airplanes, bridges, and even buildings.

Gershenfeld describes the main difference as being one between the robotic device and the materials it's working with. He said: "you can’t separate the robot from the structure — they work together as a system."

Assembler Robots Build Complicated Structures Out of Small Identical Pieces
Computer simulation shows a group of four assembler robots at work on building a three-dimensional structure. Whole swarms of such robots could be unleashed to create large structures such as airplane wings or space habitats. Illustration courtesy of the researchers. Source: MIT News

The team's aspirations for their new robotic system are for it to be used to build entire structures, especially those located in trying environments. Gershenfeld pointed out space, the Moon, or even Mars. 

This could change the whole way we currently operate, as large preassembled structures wouldn't need to be finished here on Earth before being sent into space. Rather, it would be possible to send batches of smaller units, which could then be assembled on the spot at their final destination. 

When describing their process, Gershenfeld stated: "we feel like we’re uncovering a new field of hybrid material-robot systems."

The team's study will appear in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters this month.

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