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.