Herds of assembly robots show potential for making larger structures |  MIT News

Herds of assembly robots show potential for making larger structures | MIT News

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have taken significant steps toward creating robots that can feasibly and economically assemble almost anything, including things much larger than themselves, from vehicles to buildings to even larger robots.

The new work, from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), builds on years of research, including recent studies showing that objects such as a deformable airplane wing and a functional race car can be assembled from identical small, lightweight pieces — and that robotic hardware can be fabricated to perform Some of this compilation work. Now, the team has shown that both assembly robots and components of the structure being built can all be made from the same subunits, and the robots can move independently in large numbers to quickly accomplish large-scale assemblies.

The new work is reported in the journal Nature Communications Engineeringin a paper written by CBA doctoral student Amira Abdelrahman, professor and CBA director Neil Gershenfeld, and three others.

A fully autonomous self-replicating robot assembly system capable of assembling larger structures, including even larger robots, and planning the best construction sequence, Gershenfeld says, is still years away. But the new work makes important strides toward that goal, including working out the complex tasks of when and how big to build more robots, as well as how to organize swarms of robots of different sizes to build a structure efficiently without colliding. each other.

As in previous experiments, the new system includes large, usable structures built from a set of exact identical subunits called voxels (the volumetric equivalent of a 2D pixel). But while previous pixels were purely mechanical skeletal pieces, now the team has developed complex voxels that can each transmit power and data from one unit to another. This can lead to the construction of structures that can not only withstand loads but also perform work, such as lifting, moving, and handling materials — including the pixels themselves.

“When we build these structures, you have to build in intelligence,” Gershenfeld says. Whereas earlier versions of collector robots were connected by bundles of wires to their power supply and control systems, “what emerged was the idea of ​​structural electronics — to make voxels that transmit power and data as well as power.” He points to the new system in action, “There are no wires. There is just the chassis.”

The bots themselves consist of a series of many pixels connected end-to-end. These can grab another voxel using attachment points on one end, and then move like a worm to the desired position, where the voxel can be attached to the growing structure and released there.

Gershenfeld states that while the previous system demonstrated by members of his group could in principle build arbitrarily large structures, as the size of those structures reached a certain point in relation to the size of the assembled robot, the process would become increasingly inefficient due to the longer paths that each would have to A cutting robot to bring each piece to its destination. At that point, with the new system, the robots can decide it’s time to build a larger version of themselves that can travel longer distances and reduce travel time. A larger structure may require another such step, with new larger robots creating larger ones, while parts of a structure with lots of fine detail may require more from smaller robots.

Abdur-Rahman says that while these robots are assembling something, they are faced with choices every step along the way: “They can build a structure, they can build another robot the same size, or they can build a bigger robot.” Part of the work he focused on It researchers is creating algorithms to make such a decision.

“For example, if you want to build a cone or a hemisphere,” she says, “how do you start planning the path, and how do you divide that shape” into different areas that different bots can work on? The software they developed allows someone to enter a shape and get an output showing where to place the first block, and each one after that, based on the distances to be traversed.

Gershenfeld says there are thousands of papers published on route planning for robots. “But the step after that, the robot has to make a decision to build another robot or a different type of robot — that’s new. There’s nothing previous to that.”

While the experimental system can perform aggregation and includes power and data links, in current versions the connectors between small subunits are not robust enough to carry the necessary loads. The team, including graduate student Myanna Smith, is now focused on developing stronger conductors. “These robots can walk and they can place parts,” says Gershenfeld, “but we’re almost—but not quite—the point where one of these robots makes another robot and walks away. And that comes down to fine-tuning things, like the strength of the actuators and the strength of the joints. … But what Long enough that these are the parts that will lead to it.”

Ultimately, these systems can be used to build a variety of large, high-value structures. For example, the way airplanes are currently built involves huge factories with bridges that are much larger than the components that make them, and then “when you make a giant airplane, you need jumbo planes to carry parts of the jumbo plane to manufacture,” Gershenfeld says. With a system like this built from tiny components put together by tiny robots, “the final assembly of the aircraft is the only assembly.”

Likewise, when producing a new car, “you can spend a year on tooling” before the first car is actually built, he says. The new system will bypass this entire process. These potential efficiencies are why Gershenfeld and his students work closely with auto companies, airlines and NASA. But even the relatively low-tech building construction industry can benefit, too.

While there has been an increased interest in 3D printed homes, today those homes require printing machinery that is the size or larger than the house being built. Again, the possibility that such structures are instead assembled by swarms of tiny robots could provide benefits. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also interested in working on the possibility of building structures to protect coasts from erosion and sea level rise.

Aaron Baker, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, who was not associated with this research, describes the paper as “a home run — [offering] An innovative hardware system, a new way of thinking about swarm scaling, and rigorous algorithms. “

Adds Becker: “This paper addresses an important area of ​​reconfigurable systems: how to rapidly scale up a robotic workforce and use it to efficiently assemble materials into the desired structure. … This is the first work I’ve seen that attacks the problem from a radically new perspective – using an initial set of robot parts to build a batch of robots whose sizes have been optimized to build the required structure (and other robots) as quickly as possible.”

The research team also included MIT-CBA student Benjamin Genet and Christopher Cameron, who now works at the US Army Research Laboratory. The work was supported by NASA, the US Army Research Laboratory, and funding from the CBA consortia.

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