A self-organizing thousand-robot swarm

FOLLOWING SIMPLE PROGRAMMED RULES, AUTONOMOUS ROBOTS ARRANGE THEMSELVES INTO VAST, COMPLEX SHAPES

By Caroline Perry, August 14, 2014
Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Cambridge, Mass. – August 14, 2014 – The first thousand-robot flash mob has assembled at Harvard University.
“Form a sea star shape,” directs a computer scientist, sending the command to 1,024 little bots simultaneously via an infrared light. The robots begin to blink at one another and then gradually arrange themselves into a five-pointed star. “Now form the letter K.”

The ‘K’ stands for Kilobots, the name given to these extremely simple robots, each just a few centimeters across, standing on three pin-like legs. Instead of one highly-complex robot, a “kilo” of robots collaborate, providing a simple platform for the enactment of complex behaviors.

Just as trillions of individual cells can assemble into an intelligent organism, or a thousand starlings can form a great flowing murmuration across the sky, the Kilobots demonstrate how complexity can arise from very simple behaviors performed en masse. To computer scientists, they also represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence (AI).

The Kilobots, a swarm of one thousand simple but collaborative robots. (Photo courtesy of Mike Rubenstein
and Science/AAAS.)

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