In a proposal released earlier this month, the Department of Defense (DoD) described the development of a "swarm of micro-robotic fabrication machines" that will be able to manufacture "new materials and components."
Micro-fabrication, or 3D printing, uses a PC and basic manufacturing capabilities to "print" small components. 3D printers are already cheaply and commercially available, with users printing basic objects like jewelry and toys. The process has also been suggested for the creation of space stations in-orbit.
The Navy's proposed micro-robots would each produce small and even nano-sized building blocks, which could then be assembled into larger structures and materials. In addition to manufacturing, the robots would be capable of performing basic tasks such as "pick and place, dispense liquids, print inks, remove material, join components, etc." They would be able to move efficiently around the workspace and work cooperatively to build structures.
The robots could be used to repair naval vessels while out at sea—saving time, money and even lives when there is critical damage. (Source: U.S. Navy)"The manufacturing platform could be a micro-factory that is capable of building high-value components with small dimensions while consuming fewer resources," explains the proposal. "Its small scale motivates new and different approaches to the means of production, not just shrinking the equipment size."
In the first phase of the project, robotic engineers will develop proof-of-concept for the manufacturing design. This will include developing hardware for task-specific micro-robots, creating necessary software and developing algorithms. Engineers will also create a cyber-enabled system to operate the robotic factory.
During the second phase of the project, engineers will build a micro-robotic system and demonstrate its ability to manufacture a prototype complex material system. According to the DoD, the team will also "ensure accuracy in material placement, consistency in product quality, and reliability in production."
In the third and final phase, there will be a focus on transitioning the technology for critical military use. Engineers will build marketable units and demonstrate the functionality of the technology.
Popular Science posits that the technology could be particularly useful on Navy vessels to repair damaged components on-site. The system could also create programmable materials or new robots.
In addition to critical military uses, the robotic technology could also have commercial application. According to the proposal, "such a manufacturing platform can be used to create super-strong components, ultra-lightweight materials, composite and hierarchical structures, complex part geometries, and/or multi-functional components."
The robotic project follows the recent theme of technological proposals made by the U.S. government, with other projects including the expansion of broadband access and increasing funding for tech education.