Harvard University scientists have devised a swarm of 1,024 tiny robots that can work together without any guiding central intelligence.
The Wall St. Journal on MSN MoneyLike a mechanical flash mob, these robots can assemble themselves into five-pointed stars, letters of the alphabet and other complex designs. The researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reported their work Thursday in Science.
“No one had really built a swarm of this size before, where everyone works together to achieve a goal,” said robotics researcher Michael Rubenstein, who led the project.
While still experimental, such armadas of self-organizing robots one day may aid in oil spill cleanups, deep-sea ventures, military surveillance and planetary exploration.
Swarm scientists are inspired by nature’s team players — social insects like bees, ants and termites; schools of fish; and flocks of birds. These creatures collaborate in vast numbers to perform complicated tasks, even though no single individual is actually in charge.
Driver ants, for example, live together in colonies of 20 million or more. The ants are blind. Yet they work together to forage for food, guided by chemical signals, smell and touch.
Among such social insects, that team spirit is hard-wired into the genetic code.
To give robots that kind of hive intelligence, Dr. Rubenstein and his colleagues developed a programming formula that allowed a very large group of robots to find each other and collaborate on a task, without requiring detailed moment-to-moment instructions.
The researchers used inexpensive robots called Kilobots created by Wyss Institute engineers and licensed to a Swiss robotics company called K-Team Corp. Each one is about the diameter of a penny, with a small microprocessor, an infrared sensor, and vibration motors to move it along.
As programmed, each robot knows three things: how to follow the edge of a group; how to track its distance from where it had started; and how to maintain a sense of its relative position.
A single command, beamed to them all simultaneously via infrared, sets the process in motion.
In theory, there is no limit on the size, scale or complexity of a robot swarm. “It could automatically change shape to adapt to the task at hand,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “You could have them build other robots out of themselves.”
“The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible,” said Harvard computer scientist Radhika Nagpal.