Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology demonstrates the coordination power of tiny robots that, even with relatively limited locomotion, are capable of working together move in the most optimal way possible for their design.
“Smarticles”, as they are officially named by the researchers, are 3D-printed, and built with a very simple function of flapping their two flat arms. They seem quite useless alone, and have a very limited range of motion. However, when they are put together in a restricted environment, such as stacked beside one another within a rigid circular structure, the robots are capable of optimizing these frantic movements to create net motion. Essentially, as it was described by the press release, it became a “supersmarticle”, or a whole new robot that is made up of smaller robots.
Now, the achievement might not seem impressive at all, given that we only ever see the concept as these cluster of mindless robots wiggling around in an attempt to move inside a restricted space. However, the researchers point out that this study is meant to prove that a single robotic system can actually accomplish specific tasks even if made up of smaller robots with the exact same simple programming.
For instance, contrary to “smarter” drones that could do similar coordinated functions, the “dumber” flapping robots work in tandem to eventually exhibit emergent behavior based on the sum total of their similar actions. A sensor or two might still be needed to provide a target or goal, but this leads ultimately to an optimized “solution” (in this case, movement) based solely on its surroundings.
In other words, a “dumb” set of robots can technically be modular, easily configurable, and relatively low cost. This is as opposed to more traditional robots built with interconnected sets of motors, actuators, and segments, or fleets of robots that use sophisticated networking and programming to function and coordinate.
One application the researchers have proposed to implement this type of robotic system is passive structure repair and realignment. Indeed, the whole inspiration for the research was another innovative research that dealt with construction staples that help structures stand on their own even after the supports or container was removed.
We can envision, for example, that the concept can be used on a cluster of robots controlling a space-based solar array. These group of simple robots would readjust the array simply doing the same movements to create net motion based on simpler sensor inputs. No need to design specific mechanical elements to the array, and each robot could simply be added in and removed in case of damage or malfunction.