by Yan Jun Cao and Le LI,
PhD candidates at Polytechnique School of Montreal
Nature is amazing and always leaves us questions. When you were young, had you ever been curious about a colony of ants? They carry an insect which is much bigger than each individual and even bigger than the size of all ants together. Then they can work together and go back to their nest. Apart from ants which are easily seen, bees, locusts and birds flock also show incredible phenomenon. These interesting phenomena inspire people’s curiosity.
As the technology develops and industry grows, the cost of the robot is reducing. So the number of robots that we can use will increase dramatically in the future. At that moment, how we control these robots? Like the control strategy used now as programing one by one? Surely that way will cost a lot. So at this moment, we think about the nature swarm, how they show incredible phenomena but a single one is not aware of the global goal and information. Can we build robots like them, allowing simple individuals finishing hard task together without having to control them one by one? So here we go with research in swarm robotics.
To make a swarm robot system is not easy. Researchers around the world are working together, from hardware design, optimal control system, software design and algorithm, etc. Each topic of them is full of challenges. How to make each robot know its neighbours’ positions? How to build a large number of robots with low cost? How to design the algorithm which is the same in each robot but can implement different tasks in global? How to make simulations to simulate a whole system? All these questions are only small part problems before realizing an intelligent robot system!
But thanks to the researchers around the world, there has already been some promising results. Kilobots, a 3 centimeters robot, is a thousand-robot swarm designed to allow one to program and experiment with collective behaviours in large-scale autonomous swarms. Their experiment is the first 1000 robots platform and already shows different formations. And the price is cheap, they estimate approximately $20/robot for a thousand, up to $50/robot for a hundred.
Except these, the development in software is also very fast. We believe the application of real swarm robot are not far! So let’s have a look at the possible applications of swarm robotics in the future.
Future applications of swarm robotics
Have you watched the halftime show of the Super Bowl of this year? Swarms of flying drones assembled to present the flag of the United States at the beginning of Lady Gaga’s show. It’s a fantastic example of the application of swarm robotics in a broad sense. However, it’s more like an artistic way of using the swarm robotics. The possible real applications of swarm robotics can just take place only when we can produce the robots in quantity and reduce the cost significantly. According to the advantages of swarm robotics, they can be used to deal with problems in situations as follow:
For the robots in a swarm system are distributed, it would be very suitable for applying swarm robotics to monitoring the state of a region. This advantage will make those fixed monitoring systems replaced in near future. It will be much easier for swarm robotics systems to detect hazards immediately when they occur, for the mobility of robots in swarm systems allows the whole region to be covered.
Because the value of an individual robot in a swarm system can be negligible, swarm robotic systems can be used in dangerous situations, such as clearing a tunnel in a mining field or detecting after disasters. If even some of the robots are damaged by an accident, the system can still go on dealing with the task. This feature also enables the robots in swarm systems to be redundant, which enhances the robustness of the systems. There has been experiments that try to build dynamic communication networks in the battlefield with swarm robotics. When some of the communication nodes are destroyed by enemy, the whole network will be re-configured immediately with the redundant ones.
The ability to scale-up and scale-down make swarm robotic systems more capable of dealing with emergencies, such as the oil leakage from a sunk ship. The leakage of oil can increased very quickly when the tank of the ship breaks down. The swarm robotic system can easily cope with this situation by scaling-up, thus assembling more robots to block the leakage.
We will see many new applications of swarm robotics in the near future.
Navarro, Iñaki, and Fernando Matía. "An introduction to swarm robotics." ISRN Robotics 2013 (2012).
Şahin, Erol. "Swarm robotics: From sources of inspiration to domains of application." International workshop on swarm robotics. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2004.