NEW YORK — Individual robots do plenty of tireless work on battlefields, around warehouses and even inside some homes. That success has inspired researchers to aim higher; some envision deploying thousands of cheap, expendable robots at a time, to carry out tasks ranging from emergency rescues to exploring Mars.
Tens of thousands of cockroach-size robots could scuttle among the ruins of buildings to search for the survivors of an earthquake or tsunami, said James McLurkin, a computer scientist at Rice University. If they found a survivor, they could pass the information to rat-size robots with the brainpower to figure out a rescue plan. Dinosaur-size robots could then perform the heavy lifting or digging through rubble.
"These are the three D's of robots: tasks that are dangerous, dirty and dull," McLurkin said. "But I argue there's a fourth D of robots: distributed."
McLurkin aims to harness the swarm behavior of some insects — including ants, whose self-organizing capabilities can be seen in swarms of as many as 20 million — to program his own swarm of robots to operate in many more real-world scenarios.
He showed off his robots' capabilities in live and video demonstrations at the Singularity Summit here Oct. 15-16.
The live demonstrations featured boxy robots that flashed different-color lights and played a variety of music tunes when organizing themselves into groups. McLurkin used a remote controller to designate a "leader" robot for other robots to organize around when forming into lines or patrolling around a certain area.
On video, McLurkin tested 104 robots in his Rice University lab in Houston to perform tasks together such as searching for "hidden treasure" objects in a huge open room. When traveling through a maze, some robots could act as way points and others as pointers to give direction to the overall swarm.
Working robots must have careful management to reliably do their jobs outside the lab; up to 1,000 robots already can work in the choreographed warehouse environments of Kiva Systems by obeying a system of two-dimensional bar codes placed on the floor.
If McLurkin and his colleagues succeed, he envisions possibilities extending well beyond dangerous, dirty and dull jobs on Earth. McLurkin suggested NASA could someday send 2,000 small robots, rather than just a few robotic rovers, to explore the Martian surface.
For now, McLurkin wants to use relatively cheap robot kits as educational tools for struggling U.S. schools. His latest robot model is a tenth as expensive as its predecessor. If the cheaper trend holds, McLurkin hopes to see robots become "as popular as scientific calculators" in classrooms.