TIME robotics

This Robot Army Can Organize Itself

Harvard University — YouTube

Expect the future to be overrun with millions more like it

Scientists at Harvard University have created an army of over a thousand tiny robots that can communicate with each other to perform complex actions. The breakthrough could lay the framework for future robot brigades that collaborate to execute large tasks such as environmental cleanup.

The 1,024 simple bots, called Kilobots, are each only a few centimeters wide, but communicate with each other using infrared light to create large star- or K-shaped formations. Only the initial instruction to form up needs to be given — after that, Kilobots organize themselves and cooperate with each together to smooth out logjams or redirect bots that have wandered off-course.

Michael Rubenstein, the lead author of the study published in the journal Science, says that Kilobots mimic units found in nature such as a group of ants that link together to forge a river, or a body of cells that assemble to form an organism. “Biological collectives involve enormous numbers of cooperating entities — whether you think of cells or insects or animals — that together accomplish a single task that is a magnitude beyond the scale of any individual,” Rubenstein said in a statement released by the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Although scientists have directed simple bots to complete tasks before, this is the first time that such a large company has operated together. Radhika Nagpal, one of the researchers in the study, says that the Kilobots demonstrate the potential of robots to self-organize on a larger scale. “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,” Nagpal said in a statement. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

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