By Lisa Carlin
Computer scientists and engineers at Harvard University have developed and licensed technology that will make it easy to test collective algorithms on hundreds, or even thousands, of tiny robots.
Called Kilobots, the quarter-sized bug-like devices scuttle around on three toothpick-like legs, interacting and coordinating their own behavior as a team. A June 2011 Harvard Technical Report demonstrated a collective of 25 machines implementing swarming behaviors such as foraging, formation control, and synchronization.
Once up and running, the machines are fully autonomous, meaning there is no need for a human to control their actions.
The communicative critters were created by members of the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group led by Radhika Nagpal, the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. Her team also includes Michael Rubenstein, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS; and Christian Ahler, a fellow of SEAS and the Wyss Institute. Funding for was provided by the National Science Foundation and the Wyss Institute.
The name “Kilobot” does not refer to anything nefarious; rather, it describes the researchers’ goal of quickly and inexpensively creating a collective of a thousand bots.
Inspired by nature, such swarms resemble social insects, such as ants and bees, that can efficiently search for and find food sources in large, complex environments, collectively transport large objects, and coordinate the building of nests and other structures.
The technology is licensed by the K-Team Corporation, a Swiss manufacturer of mobile robots, researchers and is available for the rest of us.
Due to resource constraints and the complexity involved, algorithms being developed in research labs are currently only validated in computer simulation or using a few dozen robots at most. In contrast, the design by Ms. Nagpal’s team allows a single user to oversee the operation of a large Kilobot collective, including programming, powering on, and charging all robots.
So, what can you do with a thousand tiny little bots?
Robot swarms could tunnel through rubble to find survivors, monitor the environment and remove contaminants, and self-assemble to form support structures in collapsed buildings. They could also be deployed to autonomously perform construction in dangerous environments, to assist with pollination of crops, or to conduct search and rescue operations.
For now, the Kilobots are designed to provide scientists with a physical testbed for advancing the understanding of collective behavior and realizing its potential.