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Miniature Robots Being Developed to Work in Swarms

Droplet robot (University of Colorado-Boulder)

Droplet robot (University of Colorado-Boulder)

A computer science lab at University of Colorado in Boulder is building a miniature, limited-function robot designed to work in a swarm of similar devices. Computer science professor Nikolaus Correll and colleagues are building these small devices that they call droplets as building blocks for increasingly complex systems.

Correll, with lab research associate Dustin Reishus and research assistant Nick Farrow, created a swarm of 20 droplets, each the size of a ping-pong ball (pictured left). When the droplets swarm together, Correll says, they form a “liquid that thinks.” The idea of robots that work in swarms was inspired, in part, by the fictional nanomorphs from the Terminator films, which were large swarms of intelligent robotic devices used for a range of tasks.

The initial collection of droplets is expected to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These properties could then be transferred to larger swarms for more demanding tasks, including those performed in the air or on water. From this experience, Correll hopes create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into complex behaviors such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

The concept of a swarm is seen in a collaboration between Correll and other computer science and music faculty in Boulder who created a large-scale interactive display that changes fields of color, light, and sound, driven by a distributed form of artificial intelligence. Called a Swarm Wall, the exhibit, unveiled in May, has 70 intelligent nodes creating a swarming effect when they detect movement and communicate it with one another. Each node performs actions solely based on its own plan and the actions of its immediate neighbors, but together give the appearance of swarming behavior.

Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems, such as those behind the droplets and Swarm Wall. “Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” says Correll. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”

In the following video, Correll’s lab colleagues demonstrate and tell more about the droplets.

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