Robot Swarms Collaborate To Complete Difficult Tasks

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…swarm of ping pong balls? Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed tiny spherical robots that bear a striking resemblance to ping pong balls. Taken individually, these diminutive bots aren’t very spectacular, but much like humans, they take on a new personality when in close proximity to several dozen of their peers.

Led by Assistant Professor Nikolaus Correll, computer scientists at CU created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a ping pong ball, which they call “droplets.” When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a “liquid that thinks.” In the future, the bots that make up this smart liquid can work together to perform tasks, like containing an oil spill or building a space station.

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Image via CU Boulder

The inspiration behind the herd of tiny, interconnected robots was “if one robot can accomplish a singular task, think how much more could be accomplished if you had hundreds of them.”

Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks. The researchers hope to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviors such as cleaning up toxic waste or assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” said Correll. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog