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Programmable Robot Swarms

Autonomous artificial swarms of robots could enable new approaches to search and rescue missions, construction efforts, environmental remediation, and medical applications

Collective behaviors enable animals like ants to build huge complex structures through the distributed actions of millions of independent agents. These collective behaviors are inspiring engineers at the Wyss Institute to build simple mobile robots that harness the demonstrated power of the swarm, performing collective tasks like transporting large objects or autonomously building human-scale structures.

Inspired by termites, the TERMES robots act independently but collectively. They can carry bricks, build staircases, and then climb them to add bricks to a structure. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

Today, robots are generally being used today as single purpose, single use robots. Wyss researchers are developing robotic systems and algorithmic approaches to make artificial swarms of robots that collaboratively work together towards a common goal a reality. In one licensed application of the technology, a collective of 1024 ‘Kilobots’ (a kilo of robots) can be programmed to exhibit complex swarming behaviors, including foraging and firefly-inspired synchronization; it was designed to let operations like programming and powering on and off be applied to the whole group at once, no matter how many robots there are. The Kilobot technology as a means to demonstrate collective swarm algorithms in hardware rather than merely computer simulations, has been licensed to K-Team Corporation for educational applications.

Beyond this, a hive “operating system” could let a user program colonies of robots to perform complex tasks in natural environments such as land, air, and sea. Flying microrobots could be instructed to pollinate a field, or — inspired by termites — an autonomous robot construction team could be programmed to build 3D structures and traversable surfaces, to stack sandbags along vulnerable coastlines before a hurricane or to lay our barriers around toxic chemical spills. Towards these goals, Wyss researchers have developed cutting edge sensor technology, micro-actuators, and robust controllers allowing fast dynamics.

With the exception of Kilobots, all other swarm technologies developed at the Wyss Institute are open areas for licensing.

Kilobots are a low-cost, easy-to-use robotic system for advancing development of robot “swarms.” In this video, Kilobots self-assemble in a thousand-robot swarm. The algorithm developed by Wyss Institute Core Faculty member Radhika Nagpal that enables the swarm provides a valuable platform for testing future collective Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

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