Imagine a swarm of robots sticking together in order to become a large, mobile mechanism that's larger than the sum of its parts.
Far from spelling the end of days in Skynet-fashion, the scientists behind the work say they created a new method of robotics that could eventually have applications in transport, military and rescue missions.
A robot made of robots
Scientists have built a robotic system that allows several robots to attach and form a larger robot.
"What we did here was introduce a new method of understanding, classifying, and predicting locomotion from many interactive components, where the classical means would have been far more computationally intensive," William Savoie, a postdoctoral researcher at the Georgia Institue of Technology and the study lead, told Interesting Engineering.
Not only could this allow for increased mobility in unpredictable situations, but it could also be a cheaper method for carrying out tasks.
"The paradigm of most swarm robotic systems is to have many cheaper or less advanced robots, versus a single or perhaps a few advanced costly robots," Savoie explained.
What's more, these robots don't rely on a central processor and therefore have the potential to continue functioning even if one of the many parts is broken.
A robotic swarm
As such, William Savoie and colleagues believe they have discovered a method that could allow a robotic collective to overcome the limitations of one single robot.
In order to develop the new method, the researchers constructed small robots, called smarticles, that were each unable to move purposefully on their own.
Placed close together in a group, the robots formed a “supersmarticle” — a collective of robots that were able to move purposefully using the combined movements of the separate robots.
Based on the data they collected, the researchers developed an algorithm that could model different supersmarticle dynamics. Learning from these models, Savoie and his colleagues programmed the supersmarticle to move towards light through a simple maze. These experiments show great promise for controlling robotic swarms, the researchers say.
Potential for rescue missions and military operations
While the researchers stress that the work is very much in its early stages, they say this method could be used for complex operations, if future iterations are improved upon.
"While our current robots may not be capable of meaningful transport, a future robotic system utilizing the methodology we developed here could be used for transport," Savoie told Interesting Engineering.
A swarm of robots could also allow for a greater range of movements through difficult terrain.
"Rescue missions or military operations where the task is parallelizable and the conditions the robots may be faced with are uncertain, such as searching, can benefit from a larger pool of workers," Savoie described.
The more the merrier we say. Savoie and his team's work is published today in Science Robotics.