Vjeran Pavic / Re/code
SRI International has developed a new generation of ant-like robots that can work as a coordinated swarm of miniature builders.
The research powerhouse says the bots can construct lightweight, high-strength structures; handle tiny electrical components; carry out chemistry on a chip; and perform many other manufacturing tasks. Eventually, they expect that the machines, the smallest of which are no thicker than a dime, will even be able to build smaller versions of themselves.
SRI has already demonstrated the ability to make more than 1,000 of the robots work together at once.
“The vision is to have an army of ants under your control,” said Annjoe Wong-Foy, senior research engineer at the Menlo Park, Calif., institute.
He said the scalability and control of the “DiaMagnetic Micro Manipulation” technology far exceeds the demonstrated capabilities of comparable micro-robot systems.
The organization, which has explored miniature robotics since the 1990s, initially funded the latest project in-house. But nearly two years ago, it secured an undisclosed amount of money from DARPA to advance what the Department of Defense division is calling the “MicroFactory for Macro Products” project.
SRI just got to the point where they can talk about the program and offered Re/code an early glimpse.
The magnetic robots are controlled remotely by a central computer, rather than autonomous, directed along a printed circuit board by a current. The smallest version SRI has built so far is about one millimeter per side.
To see the robots in action, check out the video below:
In the lab, researchers have set the mini bots to work building thin trusses, with some assigned the task of placing little bars and others the job of gluing them in place. They’ve also created a model that can carry and handle liquids, with potential applications for what’s known as microfluidics and “lab on a chip” devices.
Those terms mean pretty much what they sound like: The transport and handling of tiny amounts of liquids, enabling chemistry at a very small scale. These techniques are making it faster, cheaper and easier to analyze DNA, diagnose medical conditions, study cellular processes and much more.
SRI is far from the only robotics research center to take inspiration from the ant world, where industrious colonies accomplish complex, coordinated tasks with minimal communication. There’s a whole field known as “swarm robotics,” anchored in the concept that relatively cheap, dumb bots following a simple set of rules can complete elaborate projects in large enough numbers.
Researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Swarm Lab recently set up robot experiments to both improve our understanding of ant behavior and better mimic it in our own transportation systems.
At the current scale, SRI’s researchers can still assemble the robots by hand. But to build subsequent generations, Wong-Foy believes they’ll eventually be able to get the robots themselves to assemble their tinier counterparts.
The other strength of SRI’s approach is built-in flexibility that will enable their use in applications that SRI hasn’t yet dreamed up, he added. “I think there are limitless applications,” Wong-Foy said.
In other words, he’s got high hopes for that little old ant: