Harvard “Kilobots” throw down some shapes

Posted on 18 Aug 2014 by Victoria Fitzgerald

Engineers in the US have created the biggest mass of tiny robots ever manufactured and studied.

Based on biological examples, like cells forming organs, the 1,024 identical robots can move into specific formations based on the programmes they are supplied with.

Nicknamed “Kilobots” because there are 1,024 bytes in a kilobyte, the cylindrical miniature machines are 3cm across and can take up to 12 hours to move into a programmed shape en masse.

The study is part of a wider plan to develop self-assembling structures and tools that could in the future support processes like disaster recovery and large-scale environmental cleaning.

Dr Michael Rubenstein from Harvard University told the BBC: “Each robot is identical and we give them all the exact same program.

“The only thing they have to go on, to make decisions, is what their neighbours are doing.

“Each robot looks at its current state – so, what have I done in the past – and also looks at what its neighbours are doing, based on communication. And it makes its own decisions.

“Running this identical program, all the robots are capable of taking turns to join the shape.”

The UK has been suitably impressed by the developments. According to the BBC, the University of Sheffield has acquired 900 of the robots to carry out their own tests.

Robots engineer from the University of Sheffield, Dr Roderich Gross told the BBC: “The Harvard Kilobot system is not only the largest swarm of robots in the world, but also an excellent test-bed allowing us to validate distributed algorithms in practice.

“The Kilobot swarms are able to attain an arbitrary shape. This goes well beyond the state of the art in robotics, as the algorithm copes with huge numbers of robots even in the presence of failure.”

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