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SEAS Develops Inexpensive Swarm of Robots

By Juliet R Bailin, Contributing Writer

Harvard researchers have developed a swarm of inexpensive robots, called Kilobots, that can be used to test collective algorithms on a large scale. These robots, designed by members of the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, can be programmed and controlled as a group rather than individually.

Researchers in a variety of fields may use Kilobots to test algorithms on a greater scale without relying on potentially inaccurate computer simulations.

Dr. Nicholas Hoff, who wrote his doctoral thesis on swarm algorithms and worked on the Kilobot Project, said that while the last 50 years has seen robots in monolithic industrial and commercial applications, multi-robot systems could be used in swarm transportation, collective construction, and to search for environmental contaminants.

“There’s a fairly large gap between what is currently possible and what is envisioned,” Hoff said. “The vision might be a million billion robots flying around, each of which has a little component of some building, and they just swarm around and pretty soon you’d have a building the way ants build an anthill. That’s pretty far away from what’s sitting in any research lab I know about. But the algorithm development is on the way.”

Researcher Michael Rubenstein, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS, said that multi-robot systems could also be used in educational settings, and that biologists may use them to test theories about swarming behaviors of insects.

Each Kilobot has an infrared receiver and transmitter that allows it to communicate with other Kilobots and to be programmed by an overhead controller.

Rubenstein said the next project is to test algorithms that have only been simulated on the computer on a fleet of 1000 Kilobots. One such algorithm is scalable self-assembly, in which the robots coordinate to form a shape.

Individual Kilobots cost $14 to make. Kilobot researchers lowered costs by replacing a more expensive motor with vibration motors like those in cell phones.

“We tried to make them as simple as possible,” Rubenstein said.

The Kilobots have been licensed commercially to K-Team Corporation and the software and hardware details have been open-sourced. Building Kilobots, though, requires specific experience.

“You need a lot of electronics background to build them and understand what you’re doing,” Rubenstein said. “If you’re a computer scientist and don’t really have any experience in actual hardware, it may be easier to purchase them.”

Christian T. Ahler, a SEAS and Wyss Institute fellow, helped design and develop the Kilobots, the overhead controller, and the Graphical User Interface for the Kilobot system. Ahler said he hoped Kilobots would inspire other researchers to develop commercial products. Exact discoveries that may arise from using Kilobots, though, are undetermined.

“That’s exactly what we don’t know,” Ahler said.

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