A huge group of self-organizing robots has emerged from Harvard. But don't worry, they're pretty tiny and quite harmless (for now).
Called Kilobots, they stand on three pin-like legs and form a swarm of 1,024 to complete basic tasks, such as forming particular shapes on command.
What's exciting about these bots is that they're self-organizing, moving in coordination like a swarm of bees or a murmuration of starlings. After being shown a 2D shape, the robots move without further direction until they form it themselves.
Kilobots, described in a paper published Thursday in Science, were developed in the lab of Radhika Nagpal, the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Back in February, her team announced a much larger robot called TERMES. TERMES works in teams, too, taking cues from the collaborative instincts of a termite colony.
Termites make decisions about what to do and where to go based on the actions of their fellow bugs: Because they smell friendly chemical traces in spots where other termites have dropped mud, they're likely to place their own loads down in the same place. After awhile, complex structures are formed — even though no one has a master plan in mind.
But TERMES teams were tiny, because of both the cost of building the sophisticated robots and the difficulty of controlling them with such a simple algorithm.
Kilobots are much cheaper to build. The new robot moves using two vibrating motors, which make it skitter on motionless legs. A simple infrared transmitter and a receiver allow the individuals to recognize others, but they have no way to see the entirety of the shape they're forming, let alone understand it.
But the bots can sense if one is going off course, or if a traffic jam forms. While their skills are rudimentary (at the moment, they still have trouble making straight lines), Nagpal believes that swarms like this will be important for the future of robotics. "Increasingly, we're going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether its hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways," she said in a statement. "Understanding how to design 'good' systems at that scale will be critical."