The Future of Robots – What you need to know
What will the future of robots look like?
It seems clear that robots will be part of our future, but forget Terminator or the droids from Star Wars: it looks more likely that lots of tiny robots will make a huge difference to the way we live and work.
With recent advances in robotics, computing and associated technologies, some scientists and engineers are predicting that robots might be building our houses, making construction faster, higher quality and cheaper.
There is a possibility that this might involve giant gantries that work like a 3D printer, or mobile robotic arms that could replace construction workers, but these large-scale machines come with problems. Not only is it difficult for them to navigate around a construction site, but if we rely on one or two huge machines any breakdown means the whole project grinds to a halt.
Researchers at Harvard have taken inspiration from the natural world by studying how termites work together to build structures which, relative to their size, are amongst the tallest in the animal kingdom. Could swarms of small bots work in a similar way to build homes and offices? Whereas a giant gantry could only build up to its own height, small bots might be able to fly or climb up the structure and continue building.
These scientists wrote a program for small, wheeled robots that recreated what they understood termites do. The robots pick up specially made bricks, which they take to the appropriate location and drop off in order to build up large structures. What is really ground breaking about this is that each bot is independent. They don’t know what the other members of the swarm are doing, but are able to decide where they need to place their brick based on a limited set of instructions.
Researchers in Catalonia are also working on a swarm of structure-building robots called Minibuilders. These are basically small 3D printers that deposit a concrete-like material in layers. They are not as independent as the Harvard robots because they each need to be attached to a central vat that feeds them building material. This can cause problems with tangled lines, which is a challenge they have yet to overcome.
However, the project is developing a combination of a robot swarm with 3D printing, which could make robotic building more viable. They have also developed one type of Minibuilder equipped with a vacuum which allows it to stick onto the side of a structure and climb up to continue building.
Scientists at a lab in Zurich have got even more creative with their work on developing construction robots to make attractive structures and building facades. In collaboration with a scientist who specialises in drones, they have an army of flying robots picking up bricks coated with a binding agent and placing them precisely to make complex structures and intricate patterns.
This relies on a motion-capture camera system which observes the swarm as they work and tells the drones what to do. This has worked well in a lab but might be more difficult in a real-world construction site.
A key benefit of the swarm idea is that the individual bots are relatively expendable. As well as decreasing the financial risk involved, these projects might have some real humanitarian benefits and might be able to build in dangerous areas such as earthquake zones without risk to human life.
There might also come a day when sanitation, electricity, water, and shelter are restored to disaster areas faster, cheaper, and far more safely by swarms of small robots.
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