We've all read science fiction stories where tiny robots (usually nano bots) are used to build things in the future. They scavenge what is around and rebuild it into something else. Of course in science fiction stories something usually goes amok with the small automatons. Either an evil genius programs them with an evil intent, or their programming results in an unintended consequence (we've all been there). So, depending on which type of disaster you're rooting for it seems like micro-robots will be coming to a store near you soon. Okay, maybe you don't need to panic, but SRI international has demonstrated some pretty cool and pretty small robots that can build real things. And if that idea doesn't bug you, then for sure their appearance and activity will.
Here's a video showing what these gadgets can do:
Actually, it's been a few years since SRI international revealed to the world their MicroFactory platform. And it looks like the concept is maturing nicely.
Some things worth noting are that these robots are propelled on magnetic fields that are generated in the substrate that they're moving across. Some of those substrates are rigid like printed circuit boards but if you watch the video you'll see that they can move across flexible circuits too. Another interesting point is that multiple robots are cooperating on a single task. You can just imagine what a swarm of these might be able to build. And they are fast. If you're like me, you like watching robot videos, but usually these robots are so slow they make a sloth seem jittery. The following video shows a robot folding a towel. Keep in mind that the video is playing 50 times faster than real-time!
But SRI isn't the only group that spent time thinking about small, insectlike robots working cooperatively. Harvard has an ongoing project called TERMES (check out the video at the TERMES link). And yes the project name is an affectionate reference to our dear friends the termites. The goal of this project was to explore very simple rules for individual insect bots in order for them to elicit something like the emergent building behavior of a termite colony. Imagine being able to write some simple rules similar to the rules in Conway's Game of Life.
This image of emergent behavior comes from the Golly project on SourceForge.
Looking forward to the day when we need microBot Spray (tm) to rid ourselves of home infestations of these devices.