This new type of robotics is based on swarm intelligence found in nature.

One of the most fascinating areas of robotics which has been gathering pace in the last couple of years is swarm robotics. Inspired by the natural phenomenon of swarm intelligence found among social insects such as bees and ants, swarm robot technology could serve a range of functions in society from farming, searching for victims of natural disasters and medicine – if it doesn’t make you feel too queasy, imagine miniaturized robots swimming through your veins to deliver medicines.

Humans Invent spoke to robot expert, Antonio Espingardeiro to find out how far scientists have come in the field of swarm robotics.

Swarm tech

Espingardeiro says, “Swarm robotics is a very recent topic of research which involves creating artificially intelligent systems that can communicate and share information with each other. For example, machines could explore a certain room with a complex environment.  When exploring a certain room, one robot could detect there are certain obstacles in one corner of the room, upload that information to a cloud server so the other robots in that corner of the room will know where the obstacles are. All this sharing of information makes a swarm intelligent behaviour that we find in nature.”

All this sharing of information makes a swarm intelligent behaviour that we find in nature

This ability for robots to communicate with each other imitates the way ants work. A single ant is not a particularly intelligent being but when they all work together they can achieve great organisational feats. For example, by releasing pheromones, certain ants who find a good supply of food can communicate this message to the rest of the colony.

As Espingardeiro points out, the goal is for the swarm robots to communicate via the cloud but at the moment scientists are experimenting with local sharing. He says, “For the time being, the first experiments are just shared locally, i.e. there is a shared wireless connection between these robots, they are all equipped with computers so they share this information but it is not really a cloud server yet.”

Robots on the cloud

Espingardeiro believes there are a huge number of applications for these swarm robots to help in dangerous situations. He says, “All situations where you need large cooperation to achieve an objective could be a potential scenario for swarm robotics. For example, if you are searching a forest in search of any traces of fire, sharing information between drones would make the system much more efficient than a single human helicopter hovering around.”

SensorFly is a project led by Professor Pei Zhang at Carnegie Mellon University, where they have created a flock of lightweight, miniature helicopters. The idea is that these could be deployed in an area where there has been a recent earthquake, searching for survivors as well as communicating with each other and human rescuers about what they have observed.

Power in numbers

Another project called Symbrion (Symbiotic Evolutionary Robot Organisms) is currently working on robots that can join up like Lego in order to navigate over and around certain objects which they wouldn’t be able to do as individual units.  This is not too dissimilar to fire ant colonies that, when faced with flooding, join together to create a raft which drifts along the water until they reach dry land.

Swarm robotics involves creating artificially intelligent systems that can communicate and share information with each other

The risk of malfunction in technology is fairly high but with swarm robotics this problem is overcome by sheer numbers. As there is no one lead robot that the system relies on, if a few of the robots break down the network can carry on without too much hindrance.

Ultimately swarm robotics aims to create robots that are individually fairly unsophisticated and cheap to produce but en masse create a sophisticated system on the macro level – and it seems we have nature to thank for this idea.


Antonio Espingardeiro is an independent robotics inventor and member of the IEEE, For more information go to www.ieee.org.


 

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