How do you simultaneously control a thousand robots in a swarm? The question may seem like science fiction, but it’s one that has challenged real robotics engineers for decades.
In 2010, the Kilobot entered the scene. Now, engineers are programming these tiny independent robots to cooperate on group tasks. This research could one day lead to robots that can assemble themselves into machines, or provide insights into how swarming behaviors emerge in nature.
In the future, this kind of research might lead to collaborative robots that could self-assemble into a composite structure. This larger robot could work in dangerous or contaminated areas, like cleaning up oil spills or conducting search-and-rescue activities.
What is Emergent Behavior?
The universe tends towards chaos, but sometimes patterns emerge, like a flock of birds in flight. Like termites building skyscrapers out of mud, or fish schooling to avoid predators.
It’s called emergent behavior. Complex behaviors that arise from interactions between simple things. And you don’t just see it in nature.
What’s so interesting about kilobots is that individually, they’re pretty dumb.
They’re designed to be simple. A single kilobot can do maybe… three things: Respond to light. Measure a distance, sense the presence of other kilobots.
But these are swarm robots. They work together.
How do Kilobots work?
Kilobots were designed by Michael Rubenstein, a research scientist in the Self Organizing Systems Research Group at Harvard. Each robot consists of about $15 worth of parts: a microprocessor that is about as smart as a calculator, sensors for visible and infrared light, and two tiny cell-phone vibration units that allow it to move across a table. They are powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, like those found in small electronics or watches.
The kilobots are programed all at once, as a group, using infrared light. Each kilobot gets the same set of instructions as the next. With just a few lines of programming, the kilobots, together, can act out complex natural processes.
The same kinds of simple instructions that kilobots use to self-assemble into shapes can make them mimic natural swarming behaviors, too. For example, kilobots can sync their flashing lights like a swarm of fireflies, differentiate similar to cells in an embryo and follow a scent trail like foraging ants.
We are angry, frustrated, and in pain because of the violence and murder of Black people by the police because of racism. We are in the fight AGAINST RACISM. George Floyd was murdered, his life stolen. The Adafruit teams have specific actions we’ve done, are doing, and will do together as a company and culture. We are asking the Adafruit community to get involved and share what you are doing. The Adafruit teams will not settle for a hash tag, a Tweet, or an icon change. We will work on real change, and that requires real action and real work together. That is what we will do each day, each month, each year – we will hold ourselves accountable and publish our collective efforts, partnerships, activism, donations, openly and publicly. Our blog and social media platforms will be utilized in actionable ways. Join us and the anti-racist efforts working to end police brutality, reform the criminal justice system, and dismantle the many other forms of systemic racism at work in this country, read more @ adafruit.com/blacklivesmatter
Stop breadboarding and soldering – start making immediately! Adafruit’s Circuit Playground is jam-packed with LEDs, sensors, buttons, alligator clip pads and more. Build projects with Circuit Playground in a few minutes with the drag-and-drop MakeCode programming site, learn computer science using the CS Discoveries class on code.org, jump into CircuitPython to learn Python and hardware together, TinyGO, or even use the Arduino IDE. Circuit Playground Express is the newest and best Circuit Playground board, with support for CircuitPython, MakeCode, and Arduino. It has a powerful processor, 10 NeoPixels, mini speaker, InfraRed receive and transmit, two buttons, a switch, 14 alligator clip pads, and lots of sensors: capacitive touch, IR proximity, temperature, light, motion and sound. A whole wide world of electronics and coding is waiting for you, and it fits in the palm of your hand.