The field of robotics has come a long way from its blocky beginnings. Now, rather than trying to create new and strange industrial forms, scientists are instead turning towards nature for inspiration. This is clearly evident in large projects such as Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog (which resembles a somewhat creepy headless moose) as well as in smaller “mini drones” which are inspired by insects like the dragonfly.
Now a team from Harvard University is looking to program huge groups of robots to work together in a team, and the are turning to nature again for inspiration. Luckily, there are plenty of examples for them to base their designs off. Primarily, they looked to copy the ‘swarming’ behaviour of bees or ants as well as the emergent behaviour of large schools of fish or flocks of birds.
To test their designs, the team assembled 1000 so-called ‘Kilobots’: small robots which have only rudimentary abilities for communication, navigation and movement. They then experimented with different ways of programming them, and assigned them different tasks. From watching the way the robots reacted to each other and the patterns which emerged from the chaotic movement of so many robots, they then found a way to program them to perform specific tasks.
The researches could command a single robot to create a pre-determined shape. This robot would then share this information with the rest of the robot ‘swarm’ through the use of an infrared signal. Then, over the course of several hours the robots would arrange themselves, seemingly at random, into the shape. In the video below you can watch this process in action - it’s actually pretty mesmerizing.
The Harvard team believes that the uses of small, swarming robots could be very numerous. In the near term, they see them being put to use for oil spill cleanup and military surveillance, while further into the future they postulate they could even be used to explore other planets. Regardless, expect to see a lot more of these swarming robots in the coming years.
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