Unleashing the robot swarm
There are two traditional versions of robots presented in science fiction. One is the well-known, intelligent humanoid figure which manufacturers have been trying to build and are getting sufficiently close to if you take a look at Honda’s Asimo. The other version is a large numbers of nano-robots working in tandem.
It is the latter version of robots that a team has been working on creating in the lab of Radhika Nagpal who is the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science as well as a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering.
Their project is called Kilobots and comprises of extremely simple three legged robots. While they may not be on the nano scale they are still just a few centimeters wide. The Kilobots combine and collaborate together to perform tasks.
Even without knowing that Nagpal is involved with the Wyss institute, it is easy to see that the team behind the Kilobots drew inspiration from nature. Nagpal had previously worked on a similar project for collaboration between large numbers of small robots based on termites.
Nagpal says regarding her fascination with nature: "The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple—and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible." She continues: "At some level you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself."
The Kilobots at present can be commanded to make simple 2D images without the requirement of any micromanagement. The real achievement of the team however is that fact that a 1000 robots, or in other words a kilo, can work together without any hitches.
Problems such as traffic jams or robots moving off course and not finding their way back have been solved with a mixture of smartly coded algorithms and by employing simple behaviour patterns for the robots. Additionally the Kilobots also have the ability to correct their own mistakes as well as the mistakes of those around themselves.
The Kilobot robot design and software is open source for non-commercial use.