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ROBO SPACE
'Flashmob' robots swarm themselves into shape
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Aug 14, 2014


A swarm of 1000 robots gathers at Harvard
Cambridge, Mass. (UPI) Aug 15, 2013 - One thousand small and extremely simple robots, each only a few centimeters across and balancing on three tiny legs, assemble autonomously -- the world's first robot flash-mob. Asked to form a "K" or "star-shape" by their programmers and they obey, slowly and seamlessly marching into position.

Researchers built and programmed the so-called kilobots to demonstrate the ways simple organisms (or machines) can combine to form impressively complex systems -- like cells that organize to form organs or ant colonies that efficiently locate and retrieve food or built elaborate shelters from dirt and sand.

The self-organizing swarm or kilobats was designed by a team of researchers lead by Radhika Nagpal, an engineering and applied sciences professor at Harvard University's Wyss Institute.

"The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple -- and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible," explained Nagpal. "At some level, you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself."

Once the robots are programmed with an initial algorithm they are completely autonomous, able to follow simple commands and form specified shapes by communicating with their neighbors. On their own, their clumsy little machines, but when they cooperate they are much more efficient.

Nagpal says this is the way of the future.

"Increasingly, we're going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether it's hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways," she said. "Understanding how to design 'good' systems at that scale will be critical."

Other researchers are impressed too. Roderich Gross, a researcher at the University of Sheffield, told National Geographic that he was so impressed he bought 900 of the mini-bots to use in his own experiments.

"This is not only the largest swarm of robots in the world but also an excellent test bed, allowing us to validate collective algorithms in practice," Gross said.

Nagpal's work was assisted by Harvard researchers Mike Rubenstein and Alejandro Cornejo. Their efforts are detailed in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Without any helping hand, more than 1,000 simple robots the size of votive candles can swarm themselves into complex shape like a star or the letter K, US researchers said Thursday.

The project is the latest breakthrough in robotics from a team at Harvard University that has also created robots inspired by termites.

Called Kilobots, these 1,024 simple machines were designed to act like bees and ants, using vibration motors to glide across surfaces and infrared lights to communicate with each other.

"We are especially inspired by systems where individuals can self-assemble together to solve problems," said Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli professor of computer science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

The project, described in the US journal Science, builds on past advances by including more robots. Previous researchers used dozens or 100s.

Because of the simple design, the robots can only communicate with others that are less than the distance of three robots away, but they need no intervention once they get their pre-programmed order.

Just what they may be used for someday is not known yet.

But whether they act like a school of fish, or an army of ants on tasks like environmental cleanup or disaster response, researchers say they believe the bots could one day be a boon to society.

"Biological collectives involve enormous numbers of cooperating entities -- whether you think of cells or insects or animals -- that together accomplish a single task that is a magnitude beyond the scale of any individual," said lead author Michael Rubenstein, a research associate at Harvard SEAS and the Wyss Institute.

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