The lines between science fiction and reality are blurring. Videos of Harvard University’s Kilobot Project by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have been making the rounds across social media. Some find the project creepy and reminiscent of insect swarms. Others find the miniature robots inspiring, due to the potential to perform collective actions. But one thing is certain – the Kilobots demonstrate capabilities that could prove extremely useful to future robotic innovation.
One of the most unique aspects of the Kilobots project is the relatively low cost of the hardware. According to documentation from a Harvard presentation at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, each robot was assembled using about $14 in parts. The build of each Kilobot seems astonishingly simple. Vibration motors, a small battery, light sensors, IR receivers and transmitters, and LED lights are all mounted on top of a circuit board. The entire bundle is made mobile with small supporting legs. Rather than controlling the legs individually, each Kilobot is steered through vibration. They literally shake their way across a surface. And these gadgets are already making their way into end users’ hands – you can actually purchase Kilobots directly from the K-Team webpage.
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Many have described the Kilobots as “insect-like,” and it’s really no surprise. Harvard researchers describe how the field of collective robot behaviors has been impacted through the observation of insects, such as ants and bees. Together, colonies of insects are able to achieve bigger goals, such as transporting objects, relaying messages, and creating formations. In fact, the viral videos of the Kilobot swarm show how these units can be controlled to form symbols. TheProgrammable Self-Assembly footage shows how the swarms communicate and move to form shapes like stars and letters. Their movements are dictated by a careful blend of computer algorithms and sensory information.
Kilobot’s don’t just form interesting shapes. Additionalvideos released by Harvard show how Kilobots can be used to forage resources, follow designated “leader” robots to a predetermined destination and synchronize their movements. From here, it’s easy to envision the practical applications of these technologies if they can be scaled to meet larger needs. For example, swarm robot technologies could be used to mine resources that are in dangerous settings, such as underwater or in mines. This could dramatically reduce the risk to human workers, who can leverage future swarm technologies to locate and transport resources or relay information across long distances.
Harvard’s K-Team Corp is encouraging the public to purchase, build, and program their own Kilobots. As these technologies become increasingly accessible, we may see new swarm technology innovations cropping up as enthusiastic programmers get their hands on these gadgets and share their creative uses.
Are you ready for the uprising of robotic swarms? The Internet is buzzing with the viral spread of Harvard’s demonstration videos. It will be exciting to see future Kilobot projects as researchers use low-cost hardware and algorithms to explore collective behaviors.