Videos of swarms of tiny “Zooid” robots have been making their way around the internet recently. The little, wheeled robots are fascinating in that they can be moved individually or collectively as “swarms” with simple hand gestures. They’re also kind of adorable.
The primary research on Zooids is being conducted by scientists and engineers from Stanford and the Université Paris-Saclay.
“Researchers from Stanford University in the U.S., and Inria and Université Paris-Saclay in France, developed these simple one-inch Zooids micro robots featuring a pair of wheels, a battery, a touch sensor, a gyroscope, and an optical sensor,” Andrew Liszewski writes in an article for Gizmodo. “They’re a far cry from Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS humanoid bot, but still remarkably capable.”
Information on building Zooids is available from GitHub, and the researchers encourage others to create their own zooids to experiment with.
“This paper introduces swarm user interfaces, a new class of human-computer interfaces comprised of many autonomous robots that handle both display and interaction,” The GitHub post explains.
“We describe the design of Zooids, an open-source open-hardware platform for developing tabletop swarm interfaces.”
The GitHub post also includes some basic schematics and instructions, as well as a general summary of the project.
“The platform consists of a collection of custom-designed wheeled micro robots each 2.6 cm in diameter, a radio base-station, a highspeed DLP structured light projector for optical tracking, and a software framework for application development and control,” the post reads.
Swarms of mini-drones will find applications from agriculture to the military – Piccolissimo ultra-tiny flying robot https://t.co/jnQ0HJmYV3
— John Tompkins (@jntmpkns) November 1, 2016
Getting the Zooids to follow gestures and interact collectively requires a computer and an overhead projector. Each Zooid’s sensor receives signals projected at it from the computer.
Zooids are clearly not the most advanced robotics technology out there, but for their size, they are still pretty impressive.
“They’re not going to lead military troops into battle, but as demonstrated in this video, the Zooids can work together for a variety of different purposes such as acting like animated pixels in an interactive display, or more mundane chores like bringing you your smartphone when you simply don’t feel like reaching for it,” Liszewski continues.
“In terms of artificial intelligence, the Zooids are straight-up dumb. But using an overhead projector that allows a separate computer to track and monitor their positions at all time, the micro robots can be sent complex instructions to perform complicated tasks by working together.”
— Gadgets 360 (@Gadgets360) August 18, 2014
Researchers hope the robots will have numerous applications. For instance, the tiny bots can move objects “like a swarm of robotic ants,” assist in displaying data, or provide reminder notifications, the above video from Voactiv reports.
Liszewski half-jokingly envisions a future where the swarms of Zooids basically serve as robotic maids, perhaps helping Roombas or other robotic vacuums by cleaning up bigger items.
“Imagine having thousands of these crawling across your floors. Sure, it would be a little creepy at times, and occasionally you’d accidentally step on one. But your days of having to pick up after yourself would be long gone. And with enough of them sharing the load, you could even program them to carry you to bed each night. That’s a future I’d sign up for.”
There’s an even creepier aspect of the Zooids that Liszewski does not mention. According to a video produced by Circuit Breaker, some Zooids could be capable of autonomy and self-assembly. Now that’s getting into the stereotypically creepy realm of sci-fi robot overlords a la Skynet. Fortunately, Zooids are far too “dumb,” in Liszewski’s words, for anything like that of course.
[Featured Image by Getty Images/Handout]