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Swarm of Robots, Assemble! Harvard Kilobots Shape Up

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A swarm of autonomous robots is organizing at Harvard University. A new study, published in "Science," describes tiny machines that function like ants in a colony, self-assembling into complicated shapes like the letter "K" or a five-pointed star. Each Kilobot isn't too intelligent on its own. The robots — each a little more than an inch long — all receive the same general command, then scuttle around on their pin legs sending signals to each other, self-organizing until they are in formation. Previously, scientists had only been able to make around 100 robots perform these kinds of tasks. This time, Radhika Nagpal, of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, made it work with 1,024 robots, thanks to a new algorithm that helped them cooperate when a traffic jam formed or a robot wandered too far from the group. While the Kilobots are relatively primitive, research like this could help swarms of more advanced robots do things like construct buildings, clean up environmental disasters and make highways filled with driverless cars a reality.

Just as single cells can assemble into complex multicellular organisms, the individual Kilobots can follow simple rules to autonomously assemble into predetermined shapes.Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS



--- Keith Wagstaff