SRI MicroFactory Of Microrobots Recalls Dick's Autofac
The MicroFactory is an army of microrobots at SRI International; half-millimeter machines swarm to build complex structures.
(SRI MicroFactory robots at work video)
The setup of the MicroFactory is fairly straightforward. The foundation is a circuit board that generates a magnetic field. The little robots themselves are magnets, which a software program drives around by manipulating the field. Each robot is outfitted with what’s known as an end effector—the tool with which it manipulates its world—which varies depending on the job the bot is assigned.
So say you want to build a lattice. You’ve got robots that hold high-strength carbon rods vertically and some that hold them horizontally, and still others that apply dabs of glue. Working in concert, the robots can build out an intricate structure, some depositing glue while others stick in the rods, constantly gliding from the lattice back to material caches to resupply.
Science fiction fans of the 1950's know all about the idea of an incredibly tiny factory; they recall the autofac from the 1955 Philip K. Dick short story of the same name:
The cylinder had split. At first he couldn't tell if it had been the impact or deliberate internal mechanisms at work. From the rent, an ooze of metal bits was sliding. Squatting down, O'Neill examined them.
The bits were in motion. Microscopic machinery, smaller than ants, smaller than pins, working energetically, purposefully - constructing something that looked like a tiny rectangle of steel.