In a breakthrough in robotics, researchers have programmed a swarm consisting of a whooping  1,024 members which can assemble in programmable 2-D shapes. The demonstration might provide insights in how natural self-assembling swarms operate, like ants who join up to form bridges for the good of the colony. Such efforts in the future might be upgraded to support 3-D shapes. Some researchers even envision tools made out of self-assembling robots (think Transformers!), but space applications seem like the most practical field for them.

My life for the swarm!

Each Kilobot, as they’ve been named, is the size of a coin, costs $20 and is programmed to follow a strict set of rules for assembly. To communicate with other members of the swarm, the robots send out and read infrared signals, but the transmission is limited to neighboring bots only – each bot is not capable of seeing or understanding the greater whole or purpose. To assemble the swarm in geometrical shapes, like a star or the letter “K”, the researchers assigned four of the bots to act like ‘seeds’. These are placed in a cluster next to the swarm, and the robots on the far side of the pack begin to inch around the edge of the formation towards the seeds, propelled by motors that make them vibrate like ringing mobile phones.

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Thus, the seeds act like reference points, helping the other bots coordinate themselves around them. As you might have guessed, the process can be slow. It took 12 hours for the 1,000 strong swarm to assemble in a K-shaped formation. Also, there also slower bots that cause traffic jams and  the shapes tend to look warped owing to the Kilobots’ imprecise tracking and their tendency to bump against one another before stopping.

The demonstration itself remains powerful. This is the first time something of this scale has been achieved and scientists are already thinking about how to use swarms of tiny bots such as the Kilobots to study natural self-assembling systems, like ants who join to form bridges and other structures. Other applications might seem futuristic, but no less practical if the bots are made cheaply and durable. Think of thousands of tiny bots, even the size of a grain of sand, that assemble together to form a wrench, only to become some other tool when the occasion calls for it. That’s real life Transformers. The concept isn’t new; I while ago I reported on similar developments at MIT, yet their snake-like bots were much bigger in size.

Check out the video below for a complete demonstration: