Power of the Swarm: Researchers Unlock the Key to a Nanoscale Robot Army

Researchers have developed a method of making thousands of tiny robots ‘cluster’ to work together on a task without using any memory or processing power, paving the way for large numbers of cheap robots to be used on tasks.

This represents a significant breakthrough as previously all robotic ‘swarms’ needed complex programming, making the process of miniaturising individual robots very difficult and time consuming.

The researchers, who are based at the University of Sheffield, believe the nanoscale robots envisioned by futurists for medicine and engineering could now be possible.

“In a real world scenario, this could involve monitoring the levels of pollution in the environment; we could also see them being used to perform tasks in areas where it would be hazardous for humans to go,” explained Dr Roderich Gross, senior lecturer in robotics and computational intelligence at Sheffield Centre for Robotics.

“Because they are so simple, we could also imagine these robots being used at the micron-scale, for example in healthcare technologies, where they could travel through the human vascular network to offer diagnosis or treatment in a non-invasive way.”

The breakthrough could be of significant benefit to the agricultural industry, where the use of tiny robots to monitor crops has already been proposed.

The researchers programmed 40 robots to cluster successfully, and performed computer simulations to demonstrate the technique’s ability to scale to thousands.

Each of the robots has only one sensor, which allows it to identify whether there is a robot in front it. If it can’t it then rotates on the spot or moves around in a circle until it can identify another robot.

By doing this, the robots can slowly form and maintain a cluster formulation

“What we have shown is that robots do not need to compute to solve problems like that of gathering into a single cluster, and the same could be true for swarming behaviours that we find in nature, such as in bacteria, fish, or mammals,” explained Gross.

“This means we are able to ‘scale up’ these swarms, to use thousands of robots that could then be programmed to perform tasks.”


The team is now looking at how to program the robots to perform basic tasks such as moving objects or sorting them into groups.

Because the approach is so simple, the robots could be very cheap to build, making it possible to use them in large numbers for everyday tasks.

Once the research has developed sufficiently, tiny robots could become part of our everyday life.

This 3D Printed Quadrupedal Soft Robot Could Make Prosthetics Comfier

Although it bears almost no resemblance to what we conventionally think of as a robot, this little guy is the latest development in the growing field of soft robotics.

Dubbed the Glaucus, the robot is inspired by the blue sea slug Glaucus Atlanticus, and is able to walk without any hard moving parts. Instead it contains two hollow interior chambers that “interdigitate” – or interlock like the fingers of clasped hands – with each other.

Two input lines pressurise the chambers individually, which bends the robot’s structure. This in turn produces a walking motion not unlike how a salamander moves.


The Glaucus is designed as a proof-of-concept. Super-Releaser, the company behind the robot, says it is the first demonstration of a method to produce almost any geometry modelled on a computer in this silicone skin.

The robot is made in such a way that producing large numbers would be very simple. It is produced from a 3D printed mould, meaning once the initial mould was created more of the Glaucus could quickly be created.

Super-Releaser believes that the technology behind this robot could have distinct benefits for the medical industry. It has proposed the development of a mouldable orthotic cuff that could be used for stroke rehabilitation or physical therapy.

“When inflated it could provide extra force for reaching and lifting,” the company explained in a video.

It also has tremendous potential in prosthetics, where comfortable fit is vital. The company has suggested that it could use a patient’s scan data to determine how force will be distributed on a leg prosthesis, and create a silicon sleeve that would contain “padding and cushioning for pain points as dictated by that data”.

The exterior of the sleeve could also be given a special surface to enable it to “mechanically lock-in with a prosthetic, providing a solid mechanical bond”.

Super-Releaser, a company based in Brooklyn, New York, in the US, is a collaboration between Matthew Borgatti, a designer and engineer with a background in animatronic puppet development for the SFX industry, and Dr James Bredt, a 3D printing veteran and lecturer at MIT.

Together they have been developing this soft robot technology with a view to creating solutions for the medical device industry.

Unlike some companies, they have also chosen to make the technology open-source: 3D printer files and documentation are freely available online, and Super-Releaser has released a forum for would-be makers to ask questions and share tips.

Images courtesy of Super-Releaser.