New modular robots can join to form one large unit

Kramer Phillips By Kramer Phillips | 3 years ago

A group of researchers at the artificial intelligence lab of the University Libre de Bruxelles have created autonomous modular robots that are able to join together and form a single machine, a new study in Nature Communications reports.

Swarming insects — such as ants and termites — are able to perform tasks in large groups that they cannot do on their own. That includes activities like carrying large objects, taking out predators, and creating intricate structures. These new robots act in a similar manner, where they can perform simple activities by themselves and much more complex ones when paired together.

“Take moving on a very rocky terrain, for example,” explained lead author Marco Dorigo, a research director at the University Libre de Bruxelles, according to Popular Science. “One alone would get stuck, but attached to each other they become more stable and they can move on the rough terrain.”

This new system is beneficial because swarm robots are much more flexible than single units. They do not need to be reprogrammed for new tasks, can be mass produced, and are also less fragile. In addition, the bots also provide redundancy, which means they can continue to work even if other robots in the system break down.

In the past, such machines have been difficult to build because it is hard to get multiple pieces to work in unison. Typically, scientists would overcome that by programming the robots for self-organization, which would allow them to make decisions based on the information in their surroundings. Unfortunately, that is quite difficult to create. Some studies have also suggested the idea of a central control computer to tell the bots what to do, but that would likely leave the machines vulnerable to communication bottlenecks that could shut down the entire system if one thing goes wrong.

The team got around the above issues by programming the robots in a unique way. While the machines are on their own they remain autonomous, but as soon as they come together they all give control to a single bot in the swarm. This allows them to seamlessly turn into one larger unit.

While the machines are still in early trials, researchers believe there are many applications for the new technology. They could be used in the military, and one day may even find use in everyday life. Smart vacuums and self-driving vehicles are already becoming more and more popular each year, and this technology may help such systems operate at higher levels.

“The important thing is that the paper is not about these specific robots,” said Dorigo, UK Press From reports. “The robots that are presented in the paper are just one example. The paper is about the technology that makes the coordination and the self-healing that our robot displayed possible.”