Imagine if you could harness the productivity of an insect colony – hundreds, if not thousands of miniature agents working together towards a larger goal – that's the future promised by swarm robotics. Potential applications, such as intelligent sensor networks, could have a wide-ranging impact on various industries. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) are developing the technology with prototypes about the size of a ping-pong ball, which they have called "droplets."

The robots contain RGB color and IR (infrared) sensing, skitter about thanks to vibrating motors, and can communicate using analog/digital IR sensors. Each droplet contains an Atmel XMega 128-A3 microprocessor capable of executing code.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” said Assistant Professor Nikolaus Correll. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.” Correll began working on a robotic garden at MIT in 2009, which he continues to develop. Part of that project is a model of a long-term space habitat maintained by green-thumbed robots.

Currently NASA is sending individual rovers to Mars about once a decade, and other space agencies around the world are exploring similar possibilities. Instead of a mission riding on the success or failure of one robot, however, swarm robotics may one day offer a different approach. An ideal swarm robot is cheap and disposable, so that even if a hundred of them fail, there would be still be hundreds more to take their place.

Software developed at the University of Colorado Boulder allows researchers to test their algorithms on thousands of robots in simulation

Swarms would have a multitude of uses. "Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space," Correll explains. For now, his team is working out the basics of swarm pattern recognition, sensor-based motion, communication, and grouping into various shapes. They can test their work on thousands of robots in a computer simulation before they attempt to run code on the real droplets.

The same group worked on a large-scale interactive art exhibit called the Swarm Wall, which had 70 nodes that would move and change color, light, and sound when they detected movement. Each node would communicate with its nearest neighbors, leading to patterns of emergent behavior. You can see these two projects in the following videos.

Source: University of Colorado Boulder


Swarm Wall: