Robots that self-assemble into a multitude of shapes are the largest swarm of robots ever assembled. Harvard researchers have designed a colony of robots, with a thousand individual machines networked together.
The autonomous robots follow simple rules to guide their behavior, coming together to shape different objects. They can operate by voice command. An operator orders the robots to create a shape, and the robots obey the order. The 1,024 robots are each a little over an inch in diameter, and stand on three thin metal legs.
"Biological collectives involve enormous numbers of cooperating entities-whether you think of cells or insects or animals-that together accomplish a single task that is a magnitude beyond the scale of any individual," Michael Rubenstein, research associate at Harvard University and the Wyss Institute, said.
Collective artificial intelligence (AI) could benefit from the creation and study of this robot swarm, according to developers.
Natural system, from cells to animals, frequently cooperates to create larger beings. Humans are a mass of human cells, living in co-existence with vast numbers of bacteria. Individual cells in cuttlefish change color to match their environments, a property that helps shield the entire animal. When army ants encounter water, they link together to form bridges and rafts to help cross the barrier.
Radhika Nagpal of Harvard University made the news in February 2014, when a group she headed developed TERMES robots, inspired by termites, able to carry out simple construction projects.
Harvard University researchers developed and released a video detailing the development of the world's largest robot colony, available on the organization's YouTube channel.
"The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple-and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible. At some level you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself," Nagpal said.
Few robot colonies have been constructed with more than 100 members, due to the complex algorithms needed to coordinate behavior among so many individuals. This challenge was overcome by making the robots highly automated, following simple rules, like edge detection, that guide construction. Movement is guided by four of the robots that determine the coordinate system prior to construction.
One day, this technology could be used to create robots that could instantly form into any shape needed for a given task. It may even be possible in the future to create programmable matter that can form into any shape - or device - needed.
Errors in movement - such as a robot going off course or "traffic jams," are sensed by other individuals, which move to correct the problem. Movement is accomplished by vibrations, adding natural errors to the system.
Creation of the colony of robots was detailed in the journal Science.