We live in a world where multiple technological revolutions are taking place at the same time. While the leaps that are taking place in the fields of computing, robotics, and biotechnology are gaining a great deal of attention, less attention is being given to a field that is just as promising. This would be the field of manufacturing, where technologies like 3D printing and autonomous robots are proving to be a huge game-changer.
For example, there is the work being pursued by MITs Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). It is here that graduate student Benjamin Jenett and Professor Neil Gershenfeld (as part of Jenetts doctoral thesis work) are working on tiny robots that are capable of assembling entire structures. This work could have implications for everything from aircraft and buildings to settlements in space.
Their work is described in a study that recently appeared in the October issue of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. The study was authored by Jenett and Gershenfeld, who were joined by fellow graduate student Amira Abdel-Rahman and Kenneth Cheung a graduate of MIT and the CBA, who now works at NASAs Ames Research Center.
As Gerensheld explained in a recent MIT News release, there have historically been two broad categories of robotics. On the one hand, youve got expensive robotics made out custom components that are optimized for particular applications. On the other hand, there are those that are made from inexpensive mass-produced modules with lower performance.
The robots that the CBA team is working on which Jenett has dubbed the Bipedal Isotropic Lattice Locomoting Explorer (BILL-E, like WALL-E) represent an entirely new branch of robotics. On the one hand, they are much simpler than the expensive, custom and optimized variety of robots. On the other, they are far more capable than mass-produced robots and can build a wider variety of structures.
At the heart of the concept is the idea that larger structures can be assembled by integrating smaller 3D pieces which the CBA team calls voxels. These components are made up of simple struts and nodes and can be easily fastened together using simple latching systems. Since they are mostly empty space, they are lightweight but can still be arranged to distribute loads efficiently.
The robots, meanwhile, resemble a small arm with two long segments that are hinged in the middle with a clamping device at each end that they use to grip onto the voxel structures. These appendages allow the robots to move around like inchworms, opening and closing their bodies in order to move from one spot to the next.
However, the main difference between these assemblers and traditional robots is the relationship between the robotic worker and the materials it is working with. According to Gershefeld, it is impossible to distinguish this new type of robot from the structures they build since they work together as a system. This is especially apparent when it comes to the robots navigation system.
Today, most mobile robots require a highly precise navigational system to keep track of their position, such as GPS. The new assembler robots, however, need only know where they are in relation to the voxels (small subunits they are currently working on). When an assembler moves onto the next one, it readjusts its sense of position, using whatever it is working on to orient itself.
Each of the BILL-E robots is capable of counting its steps, which in addition to navigation allows it to correct any errors it makes along the way. Along with control software developed by Abdel-Rahman, this simplified process will enable swarms of BILL-Es to coordinate their efforts and work together, which will speed up the assembly process. As Jenett said:
Were not putting the precision in the robot; the precision comes from the structure [as it gradually takes shape]. Thats different from all other robots. It just needs to know where its next step is.
Jenett and his associates have built several proof-of-concept versions of the assemblers, along with corresponding voxel designs. Their work has now progressed to the point where prototype versions are able to demonstrate the assembly of the voxel blocks into linear, two-dimensional, and three-dimensional structures.
This kind of assembly process has already attracted the interest of NASA (which is collaborating with MIT on this research), and Netherlands-based aerospace company Airbus SE which also sponsored the study. In NASAs case, this technology would be a boon for their Automated Reconfigurable Mission Adaptive Digital Assembly Systems (ARMADAS), which co-author Cheung leads.
The aim of this project is to develop the necessary automation and robotic assembly technologies to develop deep-space infrastructure which includes a lunar base and space habitats. In these environments, robotic assemblers offer the advantage of being able to assemble structures quickly and more cost-effectively. Similarly, they will be able to conduct repairs, maintenance, and modification with ease.
For a space station or a lunar habitat, these robots would live on the structure, continuously maintaining and repairing it, says Jenett. Having these robots around will eliminate the need to launch large preassembled structures from Earth. When paired with additive manufacturing (3D printing), they would also be able to use local resources as building materials (a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization or ISRU).
Sandor Fekete is the director of the Institute of Operating Systems and Computer Networks at the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany. In the future, he hopes to join the team in order to further develop the control systems. While developing these robots to the point that they will be able to build structures in space is a significant challenge, the applications they could have are enormous. As Fekete said:
Robots dont get tired or bored, and using many miniature robots seems like the only way to get this critical job done. This extremely original and clever work by Ben Jenett and collaborators makes a giant leap towards the construction of dynamically adjustable airplane wings, enormous solar sails or even reconfigurable space habitats.
There is little doubt that if humanity wants to live sustainably on Earth or venture out into space, it is going to need to rely on some pretty advanced technology. Right now, the most promising of these are the ones that offer cost-effective ways of seeing to our needs and extending our presence across the Solar System.
In this respect, robot assemblers like BILL-E would not only be useful in orbit, on the Moon, or beyond, but also here on Earth. When similarly paired with 3D printing technology, large groups of robotic assemblers programmed to work together could provide cheap, modular housing that could help bring an end to the housing crisis.
As always, technological innovations that help advance space exploration can be tapped to make life on Earth easier as well!
Further Reading: MIT, IEEE
- The robotics revolution - Daily Sentinel - January 26th, 2020
- Bear Robotics, a company making robot waiters, just raised a $32 million round led by SoftBank - TechCrunch - January 26th, 2020
- Raising the bar in Robotics: Liverpool Central School District hosts first competition for middle school students - WSYR - January 26th, 2020
- Bees Can Teach Engineers a Thing or Two about Robotics - The National Interest Online - January 26th, 2020
- Robots bring students together in Orange for a day of competition, collaboration - The Daily Progress - January 26th, 2020
- Diligents Vivian Chu and Labradors Mike Dooley will discuss assistive robotics at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI - TechCrunch - January 26th, 2020
- Local Kids Robotics Team Invited To Competition In Japan - Oswego, IL Patch - January 26th, 2020
- Boles' 'The Hive' buzzing in robotics competition - Herald-Banner - January 26th, 2020
- Poway High community robotics team brings home wins in Arizona - The San Diego Union-Tribune - January 26th, 2020
- Butte-Anaconda robotics team beats Montana, takes on the world - Montana Standard - January 26th, 2020
- Unearth the future of agriculture at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI with the CEOs of Traptic, FarmWise and Pyka - TechCrunch - January 26th, 2020
- Soft robotic hands may soon have a firm grip on the industry - ZDNet - January 26th, 2020
- Stanley Robotics, Lyon Airport to expand robotic parking service - Robotics Business Review - January 26th, 2020
- Amazon wins patent for robots that drop off bunches of items on delivery routes - GeekWire - January 26th, 2020
- Lynn Camp First Robotics Club gears up for season The News Journal - The News Journal - January 26th, 2020
- Mobile Robots Where Are... - Robotics Online - January 5th, 2020
- 7 Top Robotics Stocks to Buy in January - The Motley Fool - January 5th, 2020
- Programmed to win: NKY student robotics teams compete at CovCath - WCPO - January 5th, 2020
- Robotics Industry to Shift from Fixed Automation to Mobile Systems - Packaging World - January 5th, 2020
- Infographic: The Evolution of Robotics and Automation - Robotics Business Review - January 5th, 2020
- CES 2020: From Apple and Ivanka Trump to 5G, AI, robotics here's whats in store at the annual tech bonanza - YourStory - January 5th, 2020
- FIRST robotics competition season kick-off and 2020 game reveal - KSBW Monterey - January 5th, 2020
- OptiPro uses New Scale Robotics system to inspect small parts - Robotics and Automation News - January 5th, 2020
- AI and robotics execs look back tech trends of 2019 - Robot Report - January 5th, 2020
- Engineers and nurses team up to build inflatable robots - Penn: Office of University Communications - January 5th, 2020
- Geek Plus sells 10,000 warehouse robots - Robotics and Automation News - January 5th, 2020
- Ambarella shows off new robotics platform and AWS AI programming deal - VentureBeat - January 5th, 2020
- Japan Loves Robots, but Getting Them to Do Human Work Isnt Easy - The New York Times - January 5th, 2020
- Powell robotics team heading to national competition - Wyoming Tribune - January 5th, 2020
- Edtech 2020: personalised learning, robotics and teacher wellbeing - Education Technology - January 5th, 2020
- Robotics expert says automation will provide 'more interesting' jobs - Metro.co.uk - January 5th, 2020
- the marscat home bot is the world's first bionic robotic cat - Designboom - January 5th, 2020
- Jonathan Waldmans SAM documents the quest to invent a robotic bricklayer - The Boston Globe - January 5th, 2020
- The 8 Best Robotics for Kids in 2020 - December 27th, 2019
- What's the Difference Between Robotics and Artificial ... - December 27th, 2019
- 26 Robotics Companies You Should Know | Built In - December 27th, 2019
- Artificial Intelligence - Robotics - Tutorialspoint - December 27th, 2019
- Robotics - Wikibooks, open books for an open world - December 27th, 2019
- Theres a robot cat you can back on Kickstarter - The Verge - December 27th, 2019
- Local robotics team gets victory in West Virginia championship - Goshen News - December 27th, 2019
- XACT Robotics debuts its robotic technology at RSNA - DOTmed HealthCare Business News - December 27th, 2019
- From retail to robotics, Jeff Bezos is betting big on technology - Economic Times - December 27th, 2019
- Can High-EQ Robots Save The World? - Forbes - December 27th, 2019
- Robots cleaning up at stations and airports in labor-hungry Japan - The Japan Times - December 27th, 2019
- Science Center Grant Will Expand FIRST Robotics Program - Town-Crier - December 27th, 2019
- Service Robots Are Coming To Your Door - Robotics Tomorrow - December 27th, 2019
- Hillsborough Robotics Team Wins 1st Place In Championship - Hillsborough, NJ Patch - December 27th, 2019
- Starsky Robotics downsizes over-the-road trucking fleet - FreightWaves - December 27th, 2019
- Meet the creepy robots poised to take over the world - New York Post - December 27th, 2019
- Coding, robotics industry join forces to create Indigenization - OrilliaMatters - December 27th, 2019
- Do We Need A Recruitment Agency For Robots? - Forbes - December 27th, 2019
- From Global Warming To Robots: 6 Local Public Talks From 2019 And Why They Matter - wgbh.org - December 27th, 2019
- Robots, AI and Drones: When Did Toys Turn into Rocket Science? - Nextgov - December 27th, 2019
- Global Surgical Robots for the Spine Market 2019 Interpretation and Benefit Growth Mazor Robotics, Intuitive Surgical, Medtech SA - Filmi Baba - December 27th, 2019
- Coatings and Application Technologies Robotics Market Study: An Emerging Hint of Opportunity - Market Reports Observer - December 27th, 2019
- Robotics Program Introduces the Everyday Trash-Sorting Robot - Interesting Engineering - November 23rd, 2019
- Alphabet Xs new Everyday Robot project wants to build robots that can learn - The Verge - November 23rd, 2019
- Soldiers soon to see robotic mules and tougher bomb bots in the field - ArmyTimes.com - November 23rd, 2019
- IntuitiveX and NavLab Co-Create Robotics IP Family to Improve Existing Surgical Robotics Solutions within the Life Sciences Space - PRNewswire - November 23rd, 2019
- Google's Parent Company Alphabet Introduced a New Project Aimed at Developing A.I.-Enabled Robots That Learn on Their Own - Inc. - November 23rd, 2019
- 'Angry Nerds' help the blind shop in robotics competition - South Strand news - November 23rd, 2019
- Amazon wants to ship you anything in 30 minutes. It's going to need a lot of robots - CNN - November 23rd, 2019
- Six Rutherford schools compete in Robotics competition - Murfreesboro Voice - November 23rd, 2019
- LEGO robotics competition puts students' problem-solving skills to the test - KRBD - November 23rd, 2019
- Team receives funds for robotics competition - The Elkhart Truth - November 23rd, 2019
- The Everyday Robot Project Aims to Expand Usefulness of Robots - Robotics Business Review - November 23rd, 2019
- Analysis on the World's Warehouse Robotics Market, 2019-2025 - The United States Will Maintain a 10.2% Growth Momentum - ResearchAndMarkets.com -... - November 23rd, 2019
- Brentwood Middle, High Robotics Team Compete in BEST Tournament - Williamson Source - November 23rd, 2019
- White Pine Robotics teams off to a great start - Ely Daily Times - November 23rd, 2019
- DJIs new line of STEM-focused drones and robots make great gifts - Mashable - November 23rd, 2019
- Engaging the public in robotics: 11 tips from 5,000 robotics events across Europe - Robohub - November 23rd, 2019
- Robotic Takeaways and Trends from FABTECH 2019 - Robotics Business Review - November 23rd, 2019
- QEII Health Centre touts effectiveness of robotic surgery - TheChronicleHerald.ca - November 23rd, 2019
- USC Viterbi Researchers Honored with Best Paper Nomination at the 2019 International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems - USC Viterbi School... - November 23rd, 2019
- Most plastic is not getting recycled, and AI robots could be a solution - Business Insider - November 23rd, 2019
- Ten outrageous things robots can do right now, from cooking to building IKEA furniture - National Post - November 23rd, 2019
- Robots Need to Know They Can Die at Any Minute, Just Like the Rest of Us - Popular Mechanics - November 23rd, 2019
- Construction robotics is changing the industry in these 5 ways - Robot Report - October 19th, 2019
- Waxahachie FIRST Robotics Team takes 2nd place at tournament - Waxahachie Daily Light - October 19th, 2019
- [Hearing from an AI Expert 5] At the Intersection of Robotics and Innovation - Samsung Newsroom - October 19th, 2019