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Tiny Robots 'Swarm' Themselves Into Shapes

Several kilobots from a swarm of 1,000 simple, but collaborative, robots are seen in this photo from Harvard.

Several kilobots from a swarm of 1,000 simple, but collaborative, robots are seen in this photo from Harvard.

Scientists have created an army of small robots capable of taking the shape of various objects.

They’re called “Kilobots.”

But before that name causes you conjure up images of a Terminator-like killer robots able to morph into nearly anything, the “flash mob” of these 1,024 tiny, minimalist robots have only so far morphed into simple shapes like a starfish, the letter K and a wrench.

The various shapes the robots take are drawn on a computer and then sent to each robot via an infrared light.

Once the information is delivered the robots begin to organize themselves into the shape, each following the edge of the group until it reaches a desired location, each knowing its position relative to the others.

They also self-correct.

Significant breakthrough

It takes the robots hours to create the shape, because they move one at a time and not very quickly, said Harvard roboticist Mike Rubenstein.

Each component robot of the swarm is just a few centimeters across and is perched atop three legs that vibrate to give the robots locomotion. Each was hand-built and costs about $14, said Rubenstein.

While rudimentary in function, the Kilobots are a breakthrough. Harvard researchers say the kilobot represents “a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence.”

“If a traffic jam forms or a robot moves off-course—errors that become much more common in a large group—nearby robots sense the problem and cooperate to fix it,” according to a Harvard news statement.

Prior to the Kilobots, robot swarms had generally been comprised of no more than 100 individual bots. The Harvard group was able to incorporate so many individuals because “the Kilobots require no micromanagement or intervention once an initial set of instructions has been delivered.”

Robotic teams

There are many examples of this kind of behavior in the natural world. For example, ants can form bridges to cross difficult terrain.

Robot swarms are already among us. Online retailer Amazon, for example, uses robots to move items around its massive warehouses. Groups of robots also patrol the oceans, collecting various kinds of data.

“Increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether its hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways,” said Radhika Nagpal, a Harvard computer science professor in whose lab the robot was built. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

While those applications are far off, for now, Rubenstein said the next step might be to create robots that can attach to one another in order to create a rigid structure.

Here's a video about the swarm of robots: