Published December 21, 2012
Robo-droplets are now swarming together, coalescing into a "liquid that thinks," in the lab of Professor Nikolaus Correll from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
His team announced that they recently created a swarm of 20 of these tiny, ping-pong sized robots. Similar to the shape-shifting metal killers in “The Terminator II,” these basic robotic building blocks have the potential to act as teams, working together in the hundreds to achieve a specific task.
The droplets will become capable of self-assembly and “swarm-intelligent behaviors” – meaning the droplets will recognize patterns, move directed by sensors and be able to adapt their shapes.
"Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells," Correll explained, noting that there is virtually no limit to what distributed intelligence systems can create.
The team hopes that once this stage is achieved, then the swarms could also be successfully applied to working in water and air.
In 2010, the French university EPFL's Laboratory of Intelligent Systems made some breakthroughs in creating robot swarms that could fly.
The aim was to create robots that could travel in a swarm and rapidly reach victims of catastrophes in spite of difficult or impassable terrain. These robots were inspired by the grasshopper. Like the insect, they have an innovative perching mechanism, can attach to surfaces using sharp prongs and then detach on command.
Large swarms of intelligent robotic droplets could be used for a range of tasks, containing an oil spill or launching into space one by one, only to self-assemble into an essential piece of technology later.
NASA, NSF's Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research program and the U.S. Air Force have given Correll’s research support.
Ultimately, the team intends to give the droplets even more complex behaviors aggregating to assemble parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.
Correll hopes to produce a high volume of droplets to enable creating ever more complex systems and even colonizing other planets.
Research is underway to further expand Correll’s 2009 MIT work on autonomous sensors and robotic gardeners, while a long-term space habitat is being built by students.
"Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers," he said.
His ping-pong robots are not the first breakthrough in swarms designed for space exploration: In 2008, the I-SWARM project announced some progress in robot swarms intended to construct buildings on Mars.
Their robots resemble ant-sized micro-bots designed to work in a team of one hundred, reconfiguring themselves and reassemble into larger robots to complete challenging tasks.
University of Colorado Boulder has built a lab for students making available basic tools so they can contribute towards the research accelerating the college’s innovations in robotics.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.