Tiny Robots

SRI International is developing micro-robots, each with its own tool that can work together as a swarm to construct macro-scale products. These micro-robots are basically magnets that are controlled with magnetic fields through a printed circuit board substrate. It means these tiny robots are built of simple and low-cost materials that allow for mass production.

The circuit boards guide the direction and speed that the robots move in, enabling movement of up to 35 centimeters per second along even flexing surfaces.

Controlling the robots is a little like moving an army of ants that run on parallel tasks. Robots are distinguished by what’s called “end-effectors,” which in simple terms means the tools these bots use to perform tasks.

SRI envisions enabling assembly heads comprising thousands of micro-robots that can manufacture “high-quality macro-scale products while providing millimeter-scale structural control.”

“For example, some micro-robots will carry components—electronic as well as mechanical—some micro-robots will deposit liquids, and others will perform in situ quality analysis,” says SRI.

These robots will be mounted on a mobile robotic base which would allow a microfactory to build parts of any size.

Little Factories

SRI has also found a way to make the robots build their own tools when needed. Since all these micro-robots are basically the same, their tools or “end-effectors” let them carry out varying jobs. The robots can set up their own tool shop where they can fabricate tools for other robots.

The micro-robots can also form into arrays by combining with each other. This allows them to adapt to the particular task at hand.

SRI Robotics Program chief scientist Ron Pelrine says that the micro-robots could also be integrated within other robots, acting like a sort of robotic immune system that can monitor, maintain, and repair the larger robot from within.

The robotics company is also developing a way to use magnetic levitation to control the robots with better precision.

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