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Engineering Swarms of Autonomous Robots

Drawing inspiration from Nature's swarms, flocks, and schools

The Kilobot is a low-cost robot designed to test collective algorithms on hundreds or thousands of robots. Its capabilities include communication, distance sensing, locomotion, and on-board computation.

Ants and bees coordinate the efforts of hundreds to billions of workers through self-organization, foraging flexibly over huge areas with no central control. Termites build huge, complex structures through the distributed actions of millions of independent agents. These collective behaviors -- ubiquitous among these and other living organisms such as cellular systems, bacteria, fish, and birds – are inspiring engineers 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. Yet the challenges of creating such systems loom large. Even simple issues like the space required for large numbers of robots or the time needed to turn them all on have interfered with the development of hardware swarms. Conversely, the potential rewards are great. Using robotic systems for automating construction would alleviate problems such as low build efficiencies, labor shortages, high accident rates, and inconsistent build quality. They could also enable construction in settings where traditional methods are infeasible or dangerous, such as building barriers around toxic spills, constructing supports in partially collapsed buildings, or creating human habitats in extraterrestrial or undersea environments.

The Wyss Solution

Wyss Institute researchers are developing robotic systems and algorithmic approaches to make artificial swarms a reality. A collective of 1024 Kilobots demonstrates 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. A hive “operating system” lets a user program a colony of RoboBees to perform tasks like pollinating a field; the group can be commanded at a high level, without needing to specify a program for each bee. And a robot construction team inspired by termites autonomously builds three-dimensional structures according to user specifications; arsenals of such robots could one day be deployed to build low-cost houses, create traversable surfaces for other vehicles over rubble, or stack sandbags along vulnerable coastlines or structures before a hurricane.

Potential applications:

  • Search and rescue missions
  • Highway and building construction
  • Special-purpose construction
    • Building levees in flood zones, laying out sandbags
    • Barriers around toxic chemical spills
    • Supports in partially collapsed buildings
    • Shelters in war zones
  • Medical device applications, such as drug delivery strategies
  • Education efforts
We've won a Webby Award!

Wyss Institute is proud to announce our win in the 2012
Webby Awards in the Science category.