Navy eyes swarms of robot-building microbots

A plan to develop swarms of micro-robots that can build things all on their own, including other robots, might signal that the end is nigh.

Is this what we have to look forward to? Matt Hickey/CNET

The robo-pocalypse concept is still good for a laugh, as the toughest autonomous robots out there are shaped like Frisbees and suck the dust off your floor for a living. But deep in the bowels of the military research complex, scientists are working hard to wipe that grin off your face.

The latest sign is a Navy plan to develop swarms of micro-robots that can build things all on their own, including other robots. Yes, we're talking about the tipping point when robots don't need us anymore.

The Navy is looking to leverage desktop manufacturing technology--think 3D printing--to make swarms of tiny, efficient factories that create new materials and can be choreographed to build and assemble "high-value components."

From the proposal:

Each micro-robot would perform a specific task, often a single rudimentary task, repeatedly. Collectively, these tasks would be choreographed in purposeful activities for manufacturing. A micro-robot swarm should be able to perform material synthesis and component assembly, concurrently. The micro-robots could be designed to perform basic operations such as pick and place, dispense liquids, print inks, remove material, join components, etc. These micro-robots should be able to move cooperatively within a workspace to achieve highly efficient synthesis and assembly.

We've seen robots building robots before, but those cute building-block bots look less threatening than your average Lego Mindstorm creation. We've also seen modular robots that can repair themselves.

The military has much more in mind. Last year DARPA revealed a plan to build systems that participate in their own construction. These machines will test and debug themselves as they're being built.

Add to that the Navy's new plan and you've got swarms of micro-robots building robots all the way from brewing the materials through debugging. Add some evolutionary algorithms to hone the process and cue the dark storm clouds on the horizon.

(Via Danger Room)

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