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.

Electric cars: Travel further and for longer with new powdery battery developments

A future where we see electric vehicles being able to travel for hours upon hours without needing to be charged is set to be more possible thanks to American scientists who have developed new battery technology.

Researchers have created lithium-sulfur batteries that use a unique powdery nanomaterial.

At present electric cars are struggling to take-over the commercial market partly due to how much energy their lithium-ion batteries can store, which puts some potential customers off.

The lithium-sulfur battery could provide an answer to this problem as it can hold four times as much energy than current lithium-ion batteries.

This would enable electric vehicles to drive farther on a single charge as well as being able to store more renewable energy.


Scientist Jie Xiao, of the US Department of Energy, said: “Lithium-sulfur batteries have the potential to power tomorrow’s electric vehicles, but they need to last longer after each charge and be able to be repeatedly recharged.”

“Our metal organic framework may offer a new way to make that happen,” she added.

The researchers developed the batteries by adding the powder, a kind of nanomaterial called a metal organic framework, to the battery’s cathode, an positively charged electrode, to stop lithium-sulfur batteries from failing after very few charges.

Although one hurdle which still needs to be jumped is still increasing the lifespan of the batteries as they can’t be charged as many times as lithium-ion batteries.


It is hoped that the battery advancement will help to convince consumers that electric cars are value for money.

In London, UK, the reluctance to own electric cars can be seen from charging points being unused despite a high cost of installing them.

Across the whole country £16m has been spent on installing the points, with more than half of this money being directed towards London’s charging points.

More than 1,000 of 1,3000 charging points on the city’s streets were not used over a three month period in 2013.

However it has to be remembered that the distance an electric car can travel on one charge is largely dependent on how it is being driven.

For example one Telsa Motors car that runs on an 85kWH battery can travel for 300 if it is constantly travelling at 55mph.

Telsa says on its website that driving range becomes predictable based on routine and driving style.

Image 2 courtesy of DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory