This army of tiny robots can build entire planes and space habitats

This army of tiny robots can build entire planes and space habitats
Photo shows two prototype assembler robots at work putting together a series of small units, known as voxels, into a larger structureBenjamin Jenett/MIT

  • A scientist at MIT has built a prototype army of tiny robots.
  • The inchworm-looking tiny robots can build airplanes, bridges and entire space settlements.
  • This means different parts of a complex structure can be built and assembled in the same location.
There are multiple parts to a plane that are manufactured in different locations before an aircraft is actually assembled.

But, a new study by MIT's Neil Gershenfeld proposes that it could all be done in one place — and all you need a tiny robot army.

This army of tiny robots can build entire planes and space habitats

Gershenfeld has developed tiny prototype robots that can assemble small structures individually. When they come together as a team, they can even build larger things — like airplanes, bridges and entire space settlements.

"For a space station or a lunar habitat, these robots would live on the structure, continuously maintaining and repairing it," said Jenett, one of the co-authors of the study.

'Relative robots'


"What's at the heart of this is a new kind of robotics, that we call relative robots," stated Gershenfeld.

According to him, there are currently two types of robots being used. The first kind are have expensive custom parts that have to be carefully optimised and the second are inexpensive but deliver low performance.

The new robots offer a third kind of option. They're simpler than the expensive robots but have many more components than the cheap one.

The key difference between them is how the building materials are managed, according to Gershenfeld. "You can't separate the robot from the structure — they work together as a system," he explained.

This army of tiny robots can build entire planes and space habitats
Sequence of photos shows an assembler robot at work, carrying one structural unit over the top and down the other side of a structure under constructionBenjamin Jenett/MIT

The robots look like a small arm that has long segments hinged at the centre. As they move, they look like inchworms.

Every time it assembles a piece, the tiny robots can count its steps. That, combined with navigation allows the robot to correct errors with each step that takes most of the 'complexity' of expensive systems.

"It's missing most of the usual control system but as long as it doesn't miss a step, it knows where it is," noted Gershenfeld.

They would be especially helpful in constructing an entire building on dangerous terrains — like on Mars or the Moon. It would also eliminate the need to for space agency's to transport entire structures from Earth to space objects.

Instead, rockets could be sent with with large batches of tiny subunits that would be able to assemble themselves.

His tiny robot army has already attracted the attention of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which collaborated with MIT to conduct the research. It was also sponsored by the European aerospace company, Airbus.

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