Robot experts have worked for years to create this mesmerising feat of robotics: a swarm of tiny robots capable of working together to form complex patterns with no centrally guided intelligence. The impressive display was carried out by researchers at Harvard University, using an army of tiny droids each only a little larger than a penny.
Like a tiny mechanical flash mob, this automated squadron assembles itself into five-pointed stars, letters of the alphabet and any other complex designs its creators desire. The work, which was carried out by Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, was inspired by the way shoals of fish and enormous flocks of starlings (sometimes as many as 10,000 at a time) are able to coordinate their movements and form complex patterns in the sea and sky.
"No one had really built a swarm of this size before, where everyone works together to achieve a goal," said robotics researcher Michael Rubenstein, leader of the project.
"The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible," added Harvard computer scientist Radhika Nagpal.
The researchers used inexpensive robots called Kilobots created by Wyss Institute engineers and licensed to a Swiss robotics company called K-Team Corp.
Each robot knows only three things: how to follow the edge of a group; how to track its distance from where it started; and how to maintain a sense of its relative position. A single command, beamed to the whole group simultaneously using infrared, sets them off to forming their set pattern.
In theory, there is no limit on the size, scale or complexity of a robot swarm. "It could automatically change shape to adapt to the task at hand," Dr. Rubenstein said. "You could have them build other robots out of themselves."
The research creates exciting possibilities in the world of robotics, which burgeoning science has garnered increasing interest from major companies around the world. Google, for instance, bought creators of creepy robots Boston Dynamics at the end of last year.
In the UK, this kind of technology could increasingly be used in a variet yof settings. A proposal has been drafted that could see computerised "road trains" of self-driving lorry convoys placed on British roads by next year. Each set of vehicles will be controlled by just one driver.
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