Siemens’ robotic spiders are like autonomous 3D printers with legs

Spiders can be creepy — especially when they’re a foot wide and have eyes like Wall-E. But Lucky for us the spiders pictured above share the Pixar’s character’s intent — to help us. They’re a creation of Siemens’ Corporate Technology at Princeton, designed to be the automated construction bots of the future.

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Livio Dalloro, leader of the Product Design, Modeling and Simulation Research team, calls them SiSpis — shorthand for Siemens Spiders. “SiSpis are part of a larger picture that we define as Siemens Agile Manufacturing Systems (SiAMS) and they represent the core of our autonomous systems research here in Princeton,” Dalloro said.

Instead of spinning silk, these robot spiders spin plastic — or rather, a cornstarch-sugarcane mix called poly lactic acid. They’re essentially 3D printers with legs. Dalloro said, “We are looking at using multiple autonomous robots for collaborative additive manufacturing of structures, such as car bodies, the hulls of ships and airplane fuselages.”

Hasan Sinan Bank, who holds several associated patents and played a leading role in the project said, “Each spider is capable of manufacturing only a small portion of a work piece.” Something as large as the hull of a ship, would need a virtual army of these spiders working together. A good portion of the research involved creating algorithms that let the robots coordinate as they work.

“With the exception of the spiders’ mini motors and cables, which were off-the-shelf products, we developed everything ourselves from the mechanics to the software,” Dalloro said. Physical parts were 3D printed, and the team developed a unique software that combines Siemens’ own NX and a Robot Operating System.

By dividing the area into a grid, the robots use the given length of their arms to figure out the space they need to cover. Input from a laser scanner and camera allow the robots to interpret their environment.

Not only will these robots build on their own, they’ll charge themselves. When a robot’s battery gets low, it will send information about its job to a fully-charged robot, essentially tagging in another worker before it stops working to automatically seek out a charging station. The new worker can take up exactly where the first left off.

Dalloro explained of the project, “Its goal was to create a prototype platform for autonomous manufacturing machines that can understand a task, split it up among available robots, and enter into a manufacturing process in a collaborative and coordinated way without explicit programming.”

Bank said, once these robotic spiders “mature” the technology has broad applications. SiSpis have been in development since 2014, and the team is still at work with no release date announced, so no need to worry about the robot uprising just yet.