Harvard unleashes a swarm of self-organising robots

The Harvard Kilobots provide a glimpse into how machines can mimic biological processes

The Kilobots, a swarm of one thousand simple but collaborative robots

The Kilobots, a swarm of one thousand simple but collaborative robots

The robot uprising must surely be close at hand, as Ivy League scientists are diligently working to give machines the ability to collaborate with themselves without intervention from the humans.

A group of researchers at Harvard University has figured out a way for thousands of robots to coordinate their actions so that they can complete a single task, such as arrange themselves into a star formation.

The work, led by Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' computer science professor Radhika Nagpal, is part of an ongoing effort to investigate ways that machines can mimic biological processes, using AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms.

An article about the research is in this week's issue of Science.

The researchers built 1024 small, mobile, three-legged machines that can move and communicate with one another using infrared laser beams.

Humans can issue a command to the robots, such as telling them to form into a sea star or the letter 'k,' and the bots will coordinate with each other and arrange themselves into the desired pattern.

The idea is that just as simple organisms can work together to a complete a task, so too should machines be able to self-organize to complete a task, without the detailed instructions from a single master controller.

"The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple -- and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible," said Nagpal, in a statement. "At some level you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself."

Such collective coordination can be seen all across nature, the researchers said. A colony of army ants can create rafts and bridges to traverse a body of water. Starlings can join in a flock to travel thousands of miles. Individual cells come together to make larger forms of life, such as plants and animals.

Key to the robots' collective autonomous behaviour is a set of AI algorithms that allow the robots to coordinate their actions with one another without the need for intervention.

Such algorithms could one day be used as the basis of semi-autonomous software and devices that wouldn't need explicit input for each step.

With this experiment, each robot gets an image of the shape to be formed and they take turns moving into an acceptable position, based on finding the edge of the group and avoiding any traffic jams that may occur. No robot has a bird's-eye view of the proceedings, which means they must coordinate with one another. Nor do they possess an extraordinary amount of processing power, so they must rely on coordination with other bots.

Watching the robots self-organise is not unlike watching birds assemble into a flock, the researchers note.

The design of the robots, called Kilobot, is available as open source at no charge, for noncommercial use. Robot manufacturer K-Team also offers Kilobots for purchase.

The U.S. National Science Foundation and Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering helped fund the work.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags harvard universitypopular science

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Joab Jackson

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?