How does a group of animals — or cells, for that matter — work together when no one’s in charge? Tiny swarming robots–called Kilobots–work together to tackle tasks in the lab, but what can they teach us about the natural world?
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How do you simultaneously control a thousand robots in a swarm? The question may seem like science fiction, but it’s one that has challenged real robotics engineers for decades.
In 2010, the Kilobot entered the scene. Now, engineers are programming these tiny independent robots to cooperate on group tasks. This research could one day lead to robots that can assemble themselves into machines, or provide insights into how swarming behaviors emerge in nature.
In the future, this kind of research might lead to collaborative robots that could self-assemble into a composite structure. This larger robot could work in dangerous or contaminated areas, like cleaning up oil spills or conducting search-and-rescue activities.
What is Emergent Behavior?
The universe tends towards chaos, but sometimes patterns emerge, like a flock of birds in flight. Like termites building skyscrapers out of mud, or fish schooling to avoid predators.
It’s called emergent behavior. Complex behaviors that arise from interactions between simple things. And you don’t just see it in nature.
What’s so interesting about kilobots is that individually, they’re pretty dumb.
They’re designed to be simple. A single kilobot can do maybe… three things: Respond to light. Measure a distance, sense the presence of other kilobots.
But these are swarm robots. They work together.
How do Kilobots work?
Kilobots were designed by Michael Rubenstein, a research scientist in the Self Organizing Systems Research Group at Harvard. Each robot consists of about $15 worth of parts: a microprocessor that is about as smart as a calculator, sensors for visible and infrared light, and two tiny cell-phone vibration units that allow it to move across a table. They are powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, like those found in small electronics or watches.
The kilobots are programed all at once, as a group, using infrared light. Each kilobot gets the same set of instructions as the next. With just a few lines of programming, the kilobots, together, can act out complex natural processes.
The same kinds of simple instructions that kilobots use to self-assemble into shapes can make them mimic natural swarming behaviors, too. For example, kilobots can sync their flashing lights like a swarm of fireflies, differentiate similar to cells in an embryo and follow a scent trail like foraging ants.
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