Shape of things to comeHerding swarming robots

Published 18 September 2007

Individual autonomous machines are now in wide use on land, in the air, and at sea for defense and homeland security missions; using several of these robots together, in a coordinated fashion, is difficult; an MIT researcher offers a way to use “swarming” robots which talk to each other

We have written extensively about the growing use of robots — on land, in the air, at sea — for defense and homeland security missions. Individual automomous machines have already been effectively used — but now we are on the verge of a new chapter in robotics: The use of several of these machines at the same time, in a coordinated and complementary fashion. We may use swarming robots system to explore and map a large areas, for example, but controlling them all becomes a daunting task, much as herding cats would be. It is not yet possible to control more than handful of robots effectively using a central-command-like structure, says James McLurkin, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead, he says, we would be better off allowing the robots to talk to each other and, after setting a primary goal such as mapping an area or following a leader, delegating control to them. Funded by the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, McLurkin has come up with just such a system. His robots share data from their onboard optical, electromagnetic, and acoustic sensors with their swarm-mates, and frequently evaluate their ability to complete the task. McLurkin says the beauty of this design is that the number of robots involved can be dramatically increased without placing an overwhelming burden on any central-command structure. You may see two videos on McLurkin’s personal Web site showing that the technique appears to work well in ideal environments for simple tasks such as follow the leader and “clumping” into groups. The big question is, of course, how well these robots would cope with the real world.

Read more in the full swarming robots system patent application.