A memorable sequence in the 2002 future-set thriller Minority Report involves an army of spider-like robots crawling in tandem through a decrepit apartment building, scanning residents’ eyes as the film’s protagonist struggles to hide his face from them.

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Cinematic authoritarianism at its finest.

The new line of spider-like robots currently being designed and tested at a Princeton, New Jersey research facility owned by German engineering giant Siemens AG might not be as sleek, nor have they been outfitted with retinal scanners, but they work equally well together to achieve a considerably more noble goal: large-scale 3D printing.

In fact, the spiders’ head designer – product design, modeling and simulation research lead Livio Dalloro – hopes they could one day be used to construct such complex structures as the bodies of cars, plane fuselages and ship hulls.

Spider Robots 2
Siemens product design, modeling and simulation research lead Livio Dalloro tinkers with one of his multi-limbed creations.

“[Our 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,” Dallaro tells writer Arthur F. Pease in a story for Siemens’ in-house magazine Pictures of the Future.

Essentially autonomous 3D-printing devices with legs, the spiders are currently limited to producing polylactic acid but could, in theory, accommodate other 3D printing-friendly materials such as plastic, nylon, epoxy, silver, titanium, or steel.

Of course, as Pease notes, building something the size of a ship’s hull could easily require hundreds of what the developers call “SiSpis” (Siemens Spiders), so the greater challenge hasn’t been designing the robots themselves, but ensuring they can effectively collaborate on a project’s construction.

To achieve that lofty goal, Siemens’ developers have programmed each SiSpi to independently contribute only a small portion to a larger construction project, developer Hasan Sinan Bank tells Pease. Each robot uses onboard cameras and a laser scanner to automatically identify the section it can build, while other robots use the same technique to identify sections of their own, dividing the entire project into virtual boxes. Since the robots can identify and manufacture both curved and flat surfaces, the SiSpis could therefore theoretically produce the most complex shapes imaginable.

Each SiSpis’ autonomy manifests itself in other ways too. For example, when its batteries are low, a robot will transmit its data to another, freshly-charged robot which can pick up exactly where the original left off, before finding its way back to a charging station. The SiSpis also know how to navigate around obstacles.

The result of a Siemens Corporate Technology project that was started in January 2014, the spider robots are designed in a virtual space and produced using 3D printing.

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Lead developer Dalloro collaborates with a colleague on the spiders’ design.

While their miniature motors and cables were off-the-shelf products, everything else, from the mechanics to the software, was developed in-house using NX, a Siemens product lifecycle management (PLM) software solution, and a hybrid software developed by Dalloro’s team that combines NX with ROS (Robot Operating System) components.

Though it required a lot of effort, the result appears to have been worth it: Tasked with developing a system characterized by maximum autonomy and minimum programming requirements, the developers have successfully built a device that could someday see widespread industrial use, Pease writes.

“Once the technology becomes mature,” developer Bank tells him, “it could be applied to almost anything.”

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