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Swarms of cooperative robots conjure images of a dystopian nightmare world in which humanity is clinging to the final threads of its survival. In reality, autonomously cooperative robots are smaller, more helpful, and a whole lot cuter.
Dr. Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin at the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Notre Dame and Professor Daniel Goldman at the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology have crafted a crew of ant-like machines capable of calling for help and completing complex tasks without additional guidance from programmers.
Many of the robots currently in use are designed for specific purposes or terrains, and have limitations based on their design structures. For instance, wheeled robots commonly used in space exploration, are good for the sorts of hard packed, mostly flat terrain they're likely to encounter, but might struggle in wooded areas here on Earth. Additionally, they might be limited in what areas they can explore and what tasks they can complete, based on their size or carrying capacity.
Ozkan-Aydin and Goldman set out to solve this problem by developing small machines which link up to increase their collective strength or mobility, using ants as a model organism.
“We look to biological systems like animals because they have amazing capabilities,” Ozkan-Aydin told SYFY WIRE. “Ants, for instance, are very simple individuals, but when they come together you get intelligent behavior. It’s up to us to look at the ability of biological systems and figure out how they do what they do.”
They noted that ants call upon their comrades when they encounter an obstacle they are unable to overcome on their own. They’ll coordinate their efforts to move large objects and have been known to create bridges using their bodies, allowing other ants to traverse comparatively large gaps. It’s these behaviors which inspired Ozkan-Aydin and Goldman.
Owing to pandemic complications, they built their robots at home using relatively inexpensive and readily available materials. The robots' bodies were built on a commercially available 3D printer and use motors available at your standard hobby shop. “Anyone with access to a 3D printer and a few hundred dollars could build these,” Ozkan-Aydin said.
The design is relatively simple, but, like a colony of ants, it allows for intelligent collective behavior to emerge. The robots don’t have any wireless communication built in. Instead, they’re equipped with magnets for carrying metal objects and connecting to one another, as well as an LED light which serves as their mode of communication with the swarm.
When an individual needs help from the swarm — if the object it’s carrying is too heavy or it encounters impassible terrain — its LED light turns on. Other members of the swarm are equipped with a light sensor which measures the gradient of the light and moves toward it. By measuring the gradient, they can sense when they’re getting closer.
For carrying objects, they might grab at the object along another location and share the load. For traversing terrain, they can link up into long chains, becoming centipede shaped, which increases mobility. The important distinction between these swarming robots and other more complex but solitary robots is their ability to right-size for the task at hand.
“We made a centipede shaped robot previously, but the benefit with these new robots is they are modular, and you can use as many robots as are needed for a specific task,” Ozkan-Aydin said. “In one of our experiments they had to navigate a narrow maze, a larger robot wouldn’t have been able to do it. We found that our swarm was able to navigate every type of terrain it encountered.”
While taking inspiration from nature can help us build better robots, those robots can also help us learn about biological systems and how they work together to survive and thrive. Now that they’ve proved the concept, Ozkan-Aydin is working to improve the sensing and communication abilities of the swarm with an aim toward building inexpensive robotic systems capable of performing object movement, search and rescue, or monitoring environments. They might even one day reach for the stars.
“I think the best use for these is space exploration,” Ozkan-Aydin said. “They are small and inexpensive. Size and weight are considerations for space travel, so that makes these sorts of systems ideal for that. And there’s no upper limit to the size of the swarm, so you could continue to add to it as needed.”
By the time we finally set boots on another planet, there could already be swarms of mechanical helper ants waiting for us. It might, in a strange and unexpected way, make those worlds feel a little more like home.