Tiny Robots That Move Like Inchworms Are Now Assembling Structures
Wed, April 21, 2021

Tiny Robots That Move Like Inchworms Are Now Assembling Structures

Benjamin Jenett's team made robots work together to construct structures big and small / Photo Credit: Pop Tika (via Shutterstock)


Commercial aircrafts today are manufactured in sections and in different areas -- wings at a factory, tails components built in another one, and so on, David L. Chandler of research and news platform MIT News (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) reports. What if a plane is built by robots?

This is what graduate student Benjamin Jenett who is working with Professor Neil Gershenfeld in MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), envisioned in his doctoral thesis. Prototype versions of the robots can assemble small structures and even work together to construct larger ones. 

The project is presented in the October issue of IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. It is headed by Jenett, Gershenfeld, graduate student Amira Abdel-Rahman, and CBA alumnus Kenneth Cheung. Associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston Aaron Becker commented that the paper "is a treat." He continued, "It combines top-notch mechanical design with jaw-dropping demonstrations, new robotic hardware, and a simulation suite with over 100,000 elements." 

Gershenfeld explained that the project ushers a new kind of robotics called relative robots. There are two types of robotics. The first focuses on using expensive custom components, while the second utilizes "inexpensive mass-produced modules." However, the new robots are an alternative as they're simpler and more capable. They also have the capability to spearhead large-scale system productions such as airplanes and bridges. 

Gershenfeld said that one cannot separate the robot from the structure since they "work together as a system."  The assembler robots can keep track of themselves in relation to the small subunits or voxels. If a robot takes a step onto the next voxel, it will readjust its sense of positioning relative to the specific components that it is standing on. Interestingly, the robots move around like inchworms. They move a row of voxels by clasping and unclasping their V-shaped bodies. They can also correct errors in every step they take. 

In a practical setting, swarms of these robots could be used to construct buildings in space, on the moon or Mars. According to Gershenfeld, this innovation could possibly eliminate the need to ship preassembled structures from Earth. Gershenfeld felt that he and his colleagues are unearthing a "new field of hybrid material-robot systems."