Roblog: Be Warned, Robots Can Swarm

Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robotics. If science fiction is right and the impending robot apocalypse is real, it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Wednesday for a new blog of robot rants.

The ability of robots to work together without any human guidance probably sounds terrifying. It is. Much to the relief of mankind, it probably sounds nearly impossible, too. Complete robot cooperation isn’t a reality yet, but the development of this ability is on the forefront of modern robotics research.

The wish of scientists to make autonomously communicating robots, however scary, makes perfect sense. Take what a typical automated floor vacuum robot can do as an example—being solely responsible for vacuuming without any human intervention is incredible as it is. Now imagine what it would be like to have a whole team of robots that could work together. They could clean a whole house!

One of the most amazing displays of robot cooperation are the Quadrotor flying robots, developed at the University of Pennsylvannia. Originally developed by Kmel Robotics and now under development at the The General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory, these little robots keep getting more and more impressive. They can work together to make towersfly through hoops and  fly in complicated patterns without crashing. Granted, the robots aren’t 100% human-free, as plenty of programming goes into the robots before they hit the skies. Even so, the ability of a large swarm of robots to monitor each other’s locations in order to perform one task is incredibly impressive.

Moreover, these advancements have huge implications for the usefulness of robots in the future. The quadrotors currently build block towers, but someday they could be creating office buildings. They can currently do circus flying tricks, but someday they might be used for secret surveillance. All of these things could be done with minimal human intervention, as the robot’s ability to communicate with each other is continually improved.

The quadrotors aren’t the only robots that are learning to work together. The Swarmanoid project, inspired by the way insects interact, is a team of several different types of robots, each of which can perform its own small task. There’s one type of robot that can fly and scope out situations, one that can move and carry other robots and one that can climb and grab ahold of things. By splitting up a task into small pieces and delegating them to separate robots, each robot needs less functionality on its own. At the completion of the project in 2010, the Swarmanoid robots could retrieve a book from a shelf in another room, unassisted.

Robots won’t be going on solo missions to do anything important in the near future. As the ability for robots to communicate grows, however, robots will continue to become more and more useful in all fields, as they won’t require as much human supervision. Even if autonomy makes robots more like humans, there’s no guarantees it will make humans more friendly to the idea of robots. In fact, robots getting closer to Skynet-like capabilities might mean it’s time for us humans to watch our backs.

About Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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