The frictionless conditions of space are being simulated by air-hockey tables, as a new generation of intelligent robots is trained to build space stations and solar arrays.

The construction workers of the future look like oversized hockey pucks and float on a cushion of air while they pick up girders and assemble them into frameworks. These prototypes could lead to robots capable of building space systems such as giant arrays of solar panels. NASA has speculated about constructing arrays up to 10 km long.

Wei-Min Shen of the University of Southern California and his colleagues described the robots at the International Conference on Complex Systems, held last week in Boston, Massachusetts. Given the hazards of human space travel, they believe robots are the best bet for building structures in space.

“Assembly performed by astronauts would be too expensive and risky,” says Shen. His group is collaborating with NASA to develop intelligent robotic systems that can coordinate their own activities, so that they do not have to be precisely monitored and controlled by humans.

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