Relative Robots Will Change the Way Robots Work
Kyle Maxey posted on November 05, 2019 |

In modern manufacturing, large assembly operations can be complex affairs. Take, for example, the assembly of an airplane. In many instances, a single aircraft body is built section by section in factories strewn across a wide landscape. These components are then shipped—sometimes via other airplanes—to a central hub where a final assembly occurs.

Complex, costly, kaput.

At least, that’s what engineer Benjamin Jenett of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) believes, and he’s built a robotic replacement for these perceived outmoded methods of manufacturing.

As published in the October issue of IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, Jenett is introducing a new class of robot that bucks the current trends in robotic design and allows complex manufacturing to take place in a single location. Jenett calls these machines “relative robots.”

Unlike traditional robots that fit into one of two categories—expensive, optimized and custom made for factory settings, or cheap, low-performance modules—relative robots combine the best characteristics of both robot types.

Jenett’s robots “resemble a small arm, with two long segments that are hinged in the middle, and devices for clamping” onto a steady base. What makes these robots unique is the dynamism they display when put into action.

Once fired up, relative robots use their clamping base to hold steady, move an object, and then switch their base from its original point to the position that was just established by moving the object in its grasp. Using this motion, the robot crawls across the structure that it is building like a worm inching across a field, building out a planned design bit by bit.

“Ultralight, digital materials such as [these] open amazing perspectives for constructing efficient, complex, large-scale structures, which are of vital importance in aerospace applications,” said Sandor Fekete, director of the Institute of Operating Systems and Computer Networks at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany. “This is where the use of small and simple robots promises to provide the next breakthrough: Robots don’t get tired or bored, and using many miniature robots seems like the only way to get this critical job done. This extremely original and clever work… makes a giant leap towards the construction of dynamically adjustable airplane wings, enormous solar sails or even reconfigurable space habitats.”

While relative robots are still in the prototype phase, those prototypes are fairly advanced and it might not be too long before a system like Jenett’s is employed in a large commercial application. Within the next 20 years, systems based on this work could also be working off-world, building humanity’s first space colonies and establishing a new home for mankind.


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