March 28, 2013
Swarms Of Tiny Robot Helpers May Be The Wave Of The Future
Watch the video "Robot Swarms"
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineResearchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK are currently developing robot swarms that could eventually lead to a better understanding of how a group of machines could work in concert to accomplish a given task.
The robotics team has been working with a group of 40 robots capable of acting as a group to perform tasks such as pushing an object across a floor.
“There are a lot of swarm systems in nature that you may be aware of like a flock of birds, a school of fish or even the brain itself can be seen as a swarm system,” explained lead researcher Roderich Gross, from the university´s Natural Robotics Lab.
“We are interested in how these systems, that are so massively distributed actually work. Where there is no central entity that controls everything, but rather all the entities, all the individual parts — interact with each other and a complexity arises from these interactions.”
The scientists at Sheffield University programmed their robots to be simple and easy to control. For example, if the group is instructed to aggregate together, each robot only needs to determine whether there is another robot in front of it. If so, it simply rotates. If it doesn´t detect another robot, it moves in a wide circle until it locates a counterpart.
“We have restricted their abilities very much in this particular study, because we were thinking can you solve this task without any arithmetic computation,” Gross said. “We would like to know whether the swarms of the future, where the robots may be so tiny that you cannot see them anymore, the nanoscale, could also aggregate and solve these type of problems.”
“These robots may not be able to have the very powerful processors of mobile phones,” he added. “So this is why we are looking at very, very basic robots.”
Gross says that in the future, swarming robots could be used in micro-medicine, with the potential to perform non-invasive treatments on human patients. He said swarming robots could also be useful on a larger scale, aiding in military or search-and-rescue operations. These coordinated robots could act together in areas where humans cannot go. Finally, Gross said that the swarming robots could have commercial uses, potentially improving manufacturing processes and workplace safety.
“We are trying to push this frontier toward more complex tasks — where you see division of labor, where you see learning and so on,” he said.
The robots and researchers were recently featured on British television and the entire project is scheduled to be demonstrated at this year´s Gadget Show Live at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, England from April 3 through April 7.
The University of Sheffield team is working in conjunction with researchers from Sheffield Hallam University. Both of the teams received funding from the Marie Curie European Reintegration Grant within the 7th European Community Framework Program and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.