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Smart future for swarming robots

8 August 08 10:15 GMT
By Jason Palmer
Technology reporter, BBC News

Swarms of robots could one day be exploring space or doing dangerous jobs on Earth, say researchers.

Promising prototypes of co-operating robots were on show at the Artificial Life XI conference this week.

Advances in technology mean it is now possible to create self-assembling robot chains as well as tiny robots for as little as £24.

Roboticists say the swarms of robots could prove more adaptable and smarter than individual, self-contained ones.

Crowd control

"For a long time in robotics there was this focus on a 'smart machine', an android that would make you breakfast and go out and buy your shopping," said Dr Seth Bullock, the University of Southampton researcher chairing the Alife XI conference.

"But that's extremely challenging; it's going to be far easier for us to engineer little simple things and rely on them to organise themselves."

To that end, a group of undergraduate students at the University of Southampton has developed a swarm of identical, matchbox-sized robots, each of which costs just £24 to produce.

Demonstrated at the conference the prototypes showed how swarm robots can independently divide up tasks, with no central program controlling them. They skitter around, communicating as they encounter each other via the same kind of infrared technology used in mobile phones.

Red and green lights on the robot were used to show which task they had chosen. After a short while, the group autonomously divided itself - 80% red and 20% green.

The swarm can cope with disruption too. If a handful of the "green" robots are removed from the arena, the remainder will redistribute themselves again into the 80/20 split.

Scientists say this flexibility gives swarm robotics an edge over traditional approaches for far-flung missions.

"You might have some complex robot that is sent to Mars, has a technical problem, and then the mission is basically over," said Klaus-Peter Zauner, the leader of the Southampton swarm robot project.

"With swarm robots, even if a percentage of them fails, they'll still be able to achieve their goal."

Chain gang

Another swarm robot project on display at Alife XI was Sbot, part of a European-funded collaboration between the Free University of Brussels and the Institute for Cognitive Science and Technology (ISTC) in Rome.

The Sbot robots are equipped with powerful grippers, and as they encounter each other, independently decide who will grip whom. The team has linked up chains of as many as 20 of the robots in a demonstration of self-organising co-operation.

The robots can also cope with events their designers never predicted.

"If you design software with typical engineering tools like 'if this and that then do this', it's like playing a chess game by calculating all the possible moves—you'll never get there," says Elio Tuci, an ISTC researcher involved in the project.

Instead, the Sbots have been equipped with software that learns and adapts as it encounters different situations.

Planetary exploration and assembly of satellites and space stations are two favoured applications for swarm robots, but they could also be of great use on Earth.

Swarms of tiny robots like the Southampton prototypes could be deployed in a collapsed building, for instance, dividing their tasks among looking for survivors and checking for further dangers such as gas leaks.

Josh Bongard of the University of Vermont wants to use the swarm ideas with bigger robots for bigger tasks. "One application we're looking at in the US is renewable energy technologies," said Dr Bongard.

"We're going to have to start building solar farms, wave farms, wind farms, all on a scale we're not used to—hundreds of square kilometers, far from population centres," he said. "Swarms could be ideal for that."

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