Assembler robots build large structures out of small pieces

The structure seen in the image below was built by the two robots using individual pieces called voxels. The researchers working on the robots think that they may one day be able to construct complex objects, such as aircraft or structures on other planets, from multiple individual components. The team says that while commercial aircraft are built in sections today at different locations and then brought together for final assembly, these robots may allow the final assembly to be the only stage of construction.

The prototype version of the robots can assemble small structures and work as a team to build larger assemblies. The robots used in the system are called relative robots. These are an alternative to the two common types of robots in use today. Those two types of robots include highly specialized robots made of custom parts for specific applications, like automotive assembly and those made from inexpensive parts with lower performance. The new bots are an alternative to both.

The relative robots are much simpler than the expensive custom robots used in manufacturing and much more capable than the cheap, mass-produced robots. The relative robots that the team is working on don't need precise navigation systems; all they need to track their position in relation to the voxel subunits they are using for construction.

When the robots step onto the next voxel, it updates its sense of position in relation to the specific component it is standing on at the time. The voxel itself is made of simple struts and nodes. The structures have been shown in testing to distribute loads efficiently. Since the voxel is largely open space, weight is minimized.

Each voxel has its own latching system that connects the structures together. The robots themselves look like small arms that have two long segments with a hinge in the middle and devices from clamping onto voxels on each end. The bots are called BILL-E, Bipedal Isotropic Lattice Locomoting Explorer, and they could one day build habitats on the moon or construct aircraft all form small voxel components.