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Can A Thousand Tiny Swarming Robots Outsmart Nature? | Deep Look

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 Biology   |   Environmental   |   Science
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How does a group of animals -- or cells, for that matter -- work together when no one’s in charge? Tiny swarming robots--called Kilobots--work together to tackle tasks in the lab, but what can they teach us about the natural world?

↓ More info, videos, and sources below ↓

DEEP LOOK: a new ultra-HD (4K) short video series created by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios. See the unseen at the very edge of our visible world. Get a new perspective on our place in the universe and meet extraordinary new friends. Explore big scientific mysteries by going incredibly small.

More KQED SCIENCE:

Tumblr: http://kqedscience.tumblr.com
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/kqedscience
KQED Science: http://ww2.kqed.org/science

About Kilobots

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.

Read the article for this video on KQED Science:
https://ww2.kqed.org/science/2015/07/21/can-a-thousand-tiny-swarming-robots-outsmart-nature


More great DEEP LOOK episodes:

Where Are the Ants Carrying All Those Leaves?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6oKJ5FGk24

What Happens When You Put a Hummingbird in a Wind Tunnel?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyqY64ovjfY

Pygmy Seahorses: Masters of Camouflage
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3CtGoqz3ww

Related videos from the PBS Digital Studios Network!

Is Ultron Inevitable? | It’s Okay to Be Smart
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Irmtk5QG8s

A History Of Robots | The Good Stuff
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TK-h4oATYSI

When Will We Worry About the Well-Being of Robots? | Idea Channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLieeAUQWMs


Funding for Deep Look is provided in part by PBS Digital Studios and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Deep Look is a project of KQED Science, which is supported by HopeLab, The David B. Gold Foundation; S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; The Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation; The Vadasz Family Foundation; Smart Family Foundation and the members of KQED.

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