Move over bristlebot: Europe's I-SWARM program is developing some similarly small but much smarter micro 'bots that could be used to build human colonies on Mars. The tiny machines would be dispersed in huge numbers, working automatically and independently, and also collaborating together to form larger compound 'bots able to do physical stuff like moving rocks out of the way.
The team's developed the system to the point where 100 centimeter-scale machines can operate together in a "posse", moving an obstacle when one 'bot finds its path blocked, for example. And they've got two devices designed and made already: the tiny one in the image that's just three millimeters across, moves by vibration (like a bristlebot) and has 8k of OS and 2k of RAM aboard; and larger machines dubbed Jasmines that have tiny wheels.
"We now know there is water and dust so all they would need is some sort of glue to start building structures, such as homes for human scientists" says one team member, predicting that a habitat could be constructed ahead of the arrival of human explorers, thus taking some of the complexity out of manned Martian missions.
Next step is apparently to mass produce the tiny machines, using a fold-out PCB technique that's akin to origami. Then it's off to terraform Mars. OK, there's a huge bunch more research to do yet, but this is a promising and slightly creepy (in a "what if a swarm of insectoid robots go rogue?" kind of way) start. [ScienceDaily via IO9]