Harvard scientists develop swarm of robots

Like a mechanical flash mob, the group of about a thousand tiny robots can work together -- like bees or army ants -- in vast numbers without guidance.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 15, 2014 3:10PM

One of the tiny Kilobot robots that make up the swarm. © Michael Rubenstein/Harvard University
By Robert Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal


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.


"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.

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."


More from The Wall Street Journal


37Comments
Aug 15, 2014 4:15PM
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And now another of the old sci-fi movies come true.  As this technology develops we will see who uses it first, the military or terrorists.  Swarm in for a kill?  Swarm in and clog that power plant's cooling tower?  The potential for harm is endless.  But, it was bound to happen.
Aug 15, 2014 6:51PM
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If they could only get congress to do the same ...
Aug 15, 2014 6:06PM
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I'm sick of hearing of the things we'll be able to do someday.  Can we do anything now?
Aug 15, 2014 6:58PM
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Somebody forgot to close the Star Gate -- the replicators are upon us !
Aug 15, 2014 6:21PM
Aug 15, 2014 6:08PM
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Another step closer to the BioElectronicAutomatedScanning
Technology (B.E.A.S.T.)!

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I doubt that it would be used for an oil spill cleanup. I can't see any good coming from further research into this. I could picture the bots being used to either be used by a handful of people to gain power by military force, or to automate manual labor jobs all together. Granted that's probably 20 years away at least, but that's my prediction.
Aug 15, 2014 6:41PM
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The micro dot moved? The insertion of bots into any area or body guarantees control.
Aug 15, 2014 4:24PM
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Absolutely unnecessary and dangerous in so many ways. Loss of HUMAN jobs, enormous tax burdens to American taxpayers, the possibility that these things get out of control and the most obvious danger of all. What if in the future these robots are used in a police like capacity??? Can you imagine the control the authorities would have over the public???
Aug 15, 2014 6:39PM
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Yeah, everything else has gotten out of the lab and infected us. Hell, why not crazy robot technology. The thing about ants colony's and bees. Is that they have not changed in the last 2 million years. And are basically harmless because of that. Robots on the other hand are advancing ten fold. Maybe man thinks they are in control and inventing when all along it was nature doing what nature does. And man is just another tool in that swarm.


Aug 15, 2014 6:41PM
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Have scientists finally gone off the deep end? do they have an off-switch the swarm cannot one day manipulate? I'm getting very leery of scientists/technologists' creations. Maybe they need controlling.
Aug 15, 2014 5:23PM
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AS MANY BITCH ABOUT THIS --IT GETS TO THE POINT THAT EITHER WE HAVE IT OR OUR ENEMIES HAVE IT OR HEAVEN FORBID WE ALL HAVE IT--THE POINT IS THAT SO FAR THERE HAS BEEN NO NUKE WAR EVEN AS MANY HAVE CLAIMED THERE WOULD BE JUST HOPE WE STAY WISE ENOUGH TO AVOID USING THIS FOR CRIMINAL/WAR---REASONS.
Aug 15, 2014 4:59PM
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The Democrats already patented the idea, they just call them their low-info voter base.
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