Thousand Robot Flash Mob: Harvard Researchers Develop Swarming, Self-Organizing Machines

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Researchers from the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have created the first-ever thousand-robot flash mob, according to research appearing Friday in the journal Science.
Lead author Michael Rubenstein, a research associate at SEAS and the Wyss Institute, and his colleagues developed the self-organizing swarms of machines, which followed simple programmed rules delivered to them via infrared light to form complex shapes such as a five-pointed star or the letter ‘K’.
According to the research team, the robots, which are only a few centimeters long and move about on three pin-like legs, provide a simple platform for the enactment of complex behaviors. Known as Kilobots, they represent “a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence (AI),” the university explained in a statement.
Rubenstein, Alejandro Cornejo and Radhika Nagpal created the Kilobots after being inspired by natural swarms, where simple creatures can combine their efforts and cooperate to complete great tasks, explained Ed Yong of National Geographic. For example, thousands of fire ants can unite into living bridges or rafts, or how billions or neurons can come together and create something as complex as the human brain.
[ Watch the robots in action ]
“Scientists have tried to make artificial swarms with similar abilities, but building and programming them is expensive and difficult. Most of these robot herds consist of a few dozen units, and only a few include more than a hundred. The Kilobots smash that record,” Yong added. “They’re still a far cry from the combiner robots of my childhood cartoons… But they’re already an impressive achievement.”
“This is a staggering work,” Iain Couzin, who studies collective animal behavior at Princeton University, told the National Geographic reporter on Thursday. “It offers a vision of the future where robot groups could form structures on demand as, for example, in search-and-rescue in dangerous environments, or even the formation of miniature swarms within the body to detect and treat disease.”
The Kilobots are operated by only two coin batteries, and require only an initial set of instructions to begin their work, said CNET’s Michelle Starr. Once they are told what shape to create, no additional human intervention is required – four of the 1,024 robots represent the starting point of a coordinate system, while the remaining robots are given a two-dimensional image to form. They then assemble into that shape, forming it solely by gauging the location of their fellow Kilobots.
“These robots are much simpler than many conventional robots, and as a result, their abilities are more variable and less reliable,” Rubinstein told Starr, noting that while the robots sometimes “have trouble moving in a straight line, and the accuracy of distance sensing can vary,” the strength of the swarm typically helps them overcome their individual flaws. The technology could be used in the construction, agriculture, medicine, and mining industries.
One limitation, Rubenstein told BBC News science reporter Jonathan Webb, is that the process takes a remarkable amount of time. It takes the Kilobots between six and 12 hours to form the shape of a programmed image, and even takes a few hours to clean up the robots when they’re done. In fact, Rubenstein even told Webb that “watching the experiment run is like watching paint dry.”
Image 2 (below): The Kilobots, a swarm of one thousand simple but collaborative robots. Credit: Photo courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS
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