Bite-Size Kilobots Demonstrate The Power Of Teamwork

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Insects, like ants and termites, are amongst the world's best collaborators. Unlike most humans they have figured out that by working together, they can accomplish much more than they can individually. That is what some researchers are hoping to attain with Kilobots - bite-size robots capable of ant-like teamwork and intelligence.

The brainchild of a team of Harvard computer scientists and engineers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the swarm of 1,024 simple robots each measure a mere 3-centimeters in diameter or about the size of a US quarter-dollar coin. Yet, by working together as a team, they are able to accomplish the complex task of autonomously arranging themselves into various shapes, ranging from the simple letter 'K' (for Kilobots) to the more complicated structure of a starfish.

Each tiny Kilobot is fitted with three rigid legs and two vibrating motors which allow it to move in different directions. A wide-angled infrared transceiver (transmitter and receiver combined) fitted underneath allows them to communicate with one another - The transmitter shoots a light beam down at the surface as the robot scurries across the floor, while the receiver picks up similar signals sent out by nearby Kilobots. This ensures that they do not collide as they scramble to find their spot in the shape they are trying to form. As for the commands on what shape they are supposed to morph into? Those are communicated via a built-in microcontroller that picks up the 2D image transmitted by a pulsating overhead infrared light.

Once the tiny bots know what they are supposed to do, four members move to the center to start the process, with the rest slowly moving into place. The robots know exactly where to go, thanks to a pre-programmed AI (artificial Intelligence) algorithm that allows them to deduce simple logical things like staying at the edge of a group, tracking their distance from the point they began and maintaining an overall sense of where they are supposed to be, relative to each other. In case one goes astray or malfunctions, the other robots can re-route themselves to get on the right path and even take its spot. As lead researcher Michael Rubenstein explains " if a single robot among 1,000 breaks down, plenty are left to do the job." While the capabilities are considered pretty basic, the fact that they are all working toward a common goal, makes them extremely effective.

The scientists who published their research in the journal Science on August 15th, are the first to admit that Kilobots are not perfect - They have a hard time moving in a straight line and are also nearsighted, which means that they cannot see fellow robots beyond a short distance. Additionally, Kilobots need extremely smooth surfaces to function. However, the fact that such a large group can work together is being hailed as a great breakthrough, especially given that about six months ago, the same team had introduced the termite inspired 'TERMES' robots that could only function as a group of 100!

While Kilobots that cost a mere $14 USD apiece are not ready for the commercial use, they are a great laboratory tool for scientists trying to simulate how swarms of larger, more practical robots can be deployed to help with things like environmental clean-up or helping with disaster recovery. In case you are wondering why the team decided to create an odd 1,024 robots, it's because 'Kilobot' happens to be a play on the word 'kilobit', which means 1,024 bits of digital information!


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