You may have seen swarms of robots in action before but this is something new. SRI has an army of tiny insect sized robots that zip about at high speed. Is this the future of micro manufacturing? See the video.
First it is important to point out there these are passive devices. The motive power comes from the special printed circuit board that the robot is placed on. The robot is a simple magnet which is driven along by the currents in the PCB. The clever part is that the PCB can control the motion of multiple robots and hence you can have swarms of fast moving tiny robots each capable of micro manipulation.
When you watch the video you can't help but be impressed by the speed of the robots and the way that they can zoom up a wall hardly noticing gravity. Of course, the wall in question has to have a covering of special PCB material and this might seem to be a limit but - if the PCB is cheap enough why not cover a factory or even a house with it?
The robots are cheap and the only problem that remains is writing the software to make them do what you want. A video camera or depth camera could provide feedback to guide the robots in their task.
You could create a factory that built real things just using the robots to transport and assemble small components. In a home setting the robots could be the ultimate cleanup artists, transporting dust and debris to the bin. Acting in a swarm they could even move larger objects into their proper place and, yes, do the washing.
At the moment SRI doesn't have any such ambitious plans for its patented invention but it is using it as part of the micro-factory technology in the DARPA Open Manufacturing program.
"Our vision is to enable an assembly head containing thousands of micro-robots to manufacture high-quality macro-scale products while providing millimeter-scale structural control. For example, some micro-robots will carry components (electronic as well as mechanical, such as truss elements), some micro-robots will deposit liquids, and others will perform in situ quality analysis. Mounted to a mobile robotic base, a micro-factory will be able to build parts of practically any size."
Perhaps this is the future of 3D printing as well.
It also helps to remind us that not all useful robots are humanoid.
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