Robotics

Small assembler robots work together to build large structures

Small assembler robots work to...
BILL-E robots climbing over a structure they build as they go
BILL-E robots climbing over a structure they build as they go
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BILL-E robots climbing over a structure they build as they go
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BILL-E robots climbing over a structure they build as they go
An Assembler Robot picks a new block – called a voxel – and climbs over a structure to place and secure
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An Assembler Robot picks a new block – called a voxel – and climbs over a structure to place and secure

It's not uncommon for factories to make use of robots to manufacture things like cars, each responsible for a different part of the build process. Researchers from MIT have created prototype assembly robots that can build small structures on their own or work together to create bigger ones.

The idea behind Benjamin Jenett's doctoral thesis is that, instead of producing components at separate locations and shipping them to a different manufacturing plant for final assembly, the whole thing could be constructed in the same place by small robots from a pool of identical pieces. These so-called Assembler Robots have been dubbed BILL-E (Bipedal Isotropic Lattice Locomoting Explorer) and could find applications in aircraft construction, bridge building and might even erect whole buildings from the ground up.

Working with Amira Abdel-Rahman, Kenneth Cheung (who now works for NASA's ARMADAS project that's looking at designing robots to build a lunar base) and Professor Neil Gershenfeld of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, Jenett has now reached the prototype stage of development.

An Assembler Robot picks a new block – called a voxel – and climbs over a structure to place and secure
An Assembler Robot picks a new block – called a voxel – and climbs over a structure to place and secure

The robots take the form of a hinged arm with grippers at either end to clamp onto three-dimensional blocks or units – called voxels – that are used to build the structures. These voxels serve as the construction equivalent of pixels in an image, with an object being built up one voxel at a time to create a complete structure.

Each robot could be assigned a portion of the overall build, picking and placing voxels and connecting them together. And rather than needing to equip the robots with advanced navigation sensors, each BILL-E bot only needs to know where it is in relation to the voxel that it's working on at any given moment. As it moves onto other voxels, its position information is updated.

"That’s different from all other robots," said Jenett. "It just need to know where its next step is."

Working as a team, the small robots could quickly and efficiently construct large objects thanks to control software developed by Abdel-Rahman. As well as building things, other possible applications include repairing or removing/replacing damaged portions of a structure using the same process as that employed during construction. Robots could even be deployed to add new sections to existing builds, to alter their designs or function. And build project don't necessarily need to be confined to terra firma.

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

The work has been published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. Development work on the project continues. The video below has more.

Relative robotic assembly

Source: MIT News

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