Friday, June 24, 2011

Robotic Kilobots swarm and collaborate

If robots can learn to cooperate, teams of automatons could patrol borders or help out in the home. So far, it's been hard to test software that coordinates robot swarms because of the cost and difficulty of maintaining several robots.

But now an army of low-cost, social robots, designed by Mike Rubenstein and his team at the WYSS Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is proving to be a feasible way to test these systems (see video above).

In this video, you can see some of the complex behaviour they are capable of. They can disperse to explore their surroundings, play "follow the leader", or even mimic foraging behaviour.

In this last example, robots locate a food source while maintaining contact with a bot that represents their nest. When they find the food, a green light turns on and they head back to simulate depositing their find.

The tiny machines, called Kilobots, are about four centimetres in diameter and carry a battery that lasts for up to three hours. They're cheap enough to make in large numbers: according to the project site, the parts for each bot cost around US $14 and take 5 minutes to assemble.

The robots move around on three stiff legs, using two vibration motors to rotate, go straight ahead, or move along a curved path. They communicate by bouncing infrared signals off the ground, which can be used to measure how far away other bots are.

An onboard microprocessor can be programmed with simple behaviors, such as "stay 10 centimetres away from other bots." But all of the robots can also be controlled at once using a master controller hanging overhead.

For more cooperative robots, check out this video of flying robo-jugglers.

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