Swarm robots are an emerging field of technology in robotics. The technology involves coordinating multiple robots as a larger system to carry out critical tasks, and robot swarms are finding potential applications in multiple industries.
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Swarm Robots: Definition
Robot swarms are made up of multiple relatively simple physical robots, all working together to carry out tasks. The collective behavior of each individual robot results from both local interactions between them and interactions between robots in the swarm and their environment.
This approach is based on a number of scientific fields, such as artificial intelligence and etymology. At its core, the idea behind swarm robots comes from studying natural swarm behavior, which occurs in insects, ants, birds, and other organisms. Swarm behavior in social insects is also known as swarm intelligence.
Research into swarm robots has intensified in recent years, with scientists in this field focusing on robot design, physical properties, and behaviors that mimic natural swarm intelligence.
In a swarm, relatively simple individual behaviors can contribute to the behavior of the swarm as a whole, producing a large set of more complex behaviors far beyond the capabilities of individuals. Individuals cooperating with others and constantly changing, as well as the group’s behavior, contribute to the overall swarm behavior.
Swarm robots are different from other related fields of robotics research, such as general distributed robotic systems, as research emphasizes many individual robots contributing to the swarm. Scalability is promoted, and robot swarms use local communication by utilizing wireless technologies such as infrared and radio.
Distributed and decentralized coordination between groups of simple homogenous robots in a swarm gives swarm robots the ability to perform complex tasks that would otherwise be out of reach of the capabilities of individual robots.
Swarm Robots: Applications
While still an emerging technology in the field of robotics, researchers have already identified a number of potential practical applications for robot swarms in multiple industries.
Like many emergent technologies, the military is highly invested in the potential that swarm robots possess. DARPA, for instance, is investigating the possibility of using robot swarms to replace some tasks that soldiers and emergency workers currently carry out.
Robot swarms could find military applications such as collecting data underwater, search and rescue, and even as weapons systems.
Swarm robots could find applications in space exploration and potential future asteroid mining operations.
Current methods of delivering payloads into space are inefficient: fuel, oxygen, water, and every material needed for future missions need to be launched from Earth, requiring vast amounts of resources and energy. Robot swarms could be used to overcome these limitations.
NASA has already been exploring the potential of using large numbers of robots working together in swarms to extract vital resources in space, negating the need to launch much-needed payloads from the planet’s surface. One idea takes inspiration from ants, with “Swarmie” robots working together to forage critical materials from asteroids.
Nanorobots working together in swarms could herald a new frontier in medical science. Robot swarms of minuscule machines could target cancers and diseases, delivering targeted drugs directly to infected cells and locations within the human body.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute have explored the possibility of using swarms of nanorobots to treat diseases such as cancer and HIV. One particularly interesting project involves injecting large numbers of nanobots into the vitreous body of an eye and using a strong magnetic field to rotate nano propellers in the robot swarms.
Eventually, the team hopes to be able to load the nanorobot swarms with drugs to provide targeted delivery of therapeutics for a range of diseases and cancers.
Monitoring Challenging Locations
Monitoring some locations, such as those that are especially large, remote, or hostile to human life, is extremely challenging. Swarm robots could be used to monitor these environments, improving safety, reducing costs and resource use, and providing capabilities far beyond those of individual robots.
Robot swarms could be used to monitor radioactive locations underwater environments and in critical search and rescue missions in areas hit by natural or human-made disasters. Already, highly mobile swarm robots such as snake robots are being explored for these critical tasks.
Enhancing the Capabilities of Swarm Robot Intelligence
One of the keys to successful swarm robots lies in their ability to mimic natural organisms and behave in a dynamic manner. In the military sphere, DARPA is funding approaches to enhancing the intelligent behavior of robot swarms by utilizing human intelligence.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo have studied human brain waves to advance the capabilities of swarm robots for military applications. The research, funded with a $316,000 federal grant from DARPA, has studied the brain waves of gamers and their eye movements to enhance swarm intelligence in defense robots.
The overall aim of the project is to improve the organization and strategy of swarms of autonomous robots. By giving them these capabilities, robot swarms will be able to better communicate with each other and adapt to dynamic challenges on the battlefield and in situations such as emergency responses.
While still an emerging technology, swarm robots have the potential to revolutionize multiple industries such as defense, search and rescue, medicine, manufacturing, entertainment, and many others.
Key to this area is the development and adoption of genuine swarm intelligence, which will significantly accelerate the capabilities of this innovative technology. Several challenges remain to be overcome in this field of research, but studies over recent years have shown significant promise for the future of swarm robots.
References and Further Reading
Talamali, M.S., et al. (2021). When less is more: Robot swarms adapt better to changes with constrained communication. Science Robotics, 6, p. 56 [online] science.org. Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/scirobotics.abf1416
Ackerman, E. (2014). NASA Training 'Swarmie' Robots for Space Mining A swarm of small, clever robots could be key to self-sufficient solar system exploration [online] spectrum.ieee.org. Available at: https://spectrum.ieee.org/nasa-training-swarmie-robots-for-space-mining
Wu, Z., et al. (2018). A swarm of slippery micropropellers penetrates the vitreous body of the eye. Science Advances, 4, p.11 [online] science.org. Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aat4388
Linder, C. (2020). The Government Wants to Use Your Brainwaves to Train Swarms of Military Robots [online]. popularmechanics.com. Available at: https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/robots/a30855506/darpa-swarm-robots-video-game/