Tiny robots that think like the hive

Swarm can recreate shape without any instructions

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A huge group of self-organizing robots has emerged from Harvard. But don't worry, they're pretty tiny and harmless.

Called Kilobots, they stand on three pin-like legs and form a swarm of 1,024 to complete basic tasks, such as forming particular shapes on command. What's exciting about these bots is that they're self-organizing, moving in coordination like a swarm of bees or a murmuration of starlings. After being shown a 2D shape, the robots move without further direction until they form it themselves.

Kilobots, described in a paper published last Thursday in Science, were developed in the lab of Radhika Nagpal, the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Back in February, her team announced a much larger robot called TERMES.

TERMES works in teams, too, taking cues from the collaborative instincts of a termite colony. Termites make decisions about what to do and where to go based on the actions of their fellow bugs: Because they smell friendly chemical traces in spots where other termites have dropped mud, they're likely to place their own loads down in the same place. After awhile, complex structures are formed — even though no one has a master plan in mind.

But TERMES teams were tiny, because of both the cost of building the sophisticated robots and the difficulty of controlling them with such a simple algorithm.

Kilobots are much cheaper to build. The new robot moves using two vibrating motors, which make it skitter on motionless legs. A simple infrared transmitter and a receiver allow the individuals to recognize others, but they have no way to see the entirety of the shape they're forming, let alone understand it.