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A swarm of a thousand robots

A close-up of a Kilobot swarm.
[Credit: Michael Rubenstein, Harvard University]

Inspired by swarming insects, like ants or bees, researchers have created a swarm of 1,024 small robots that can communicate with each other and organize themselves into shapes, like stars or letters of the alphabet, without any help from humans. Robotic swarms like this have normally been limited to just dozens or hundreds of robots. But, Michael Rubenstein and colleagues have set a new record with their tiny machines, called Kilobots.

These Kilobots use vibration motors to slide across surfaces and infrared lights to "talk" to other Kilobots nearby. To get the small robots to form shapes by themselves, the researchers used a computer program, or an algorithm, that was ruled by three basic, collective behaviors. But, at first, the Kilobots had trouble working around collisions and other broken-down bots. So Rubenstein and his colleagues added some more algorithms that helped the Kilobots work together.

Now, the swarming Kilobots are able to use interactions with their neighbors to gain information about things that are happening farther away from them. And although the swarm of a thousand tiny robots still makes some mistakes while forming their shapes, the researchers say that the Kilobots never stop their task. They even suggest that more advanced algorithms could lead to swarms of robots that are capable of recovering from large-scale damage and attaching to each other the same way that army ants form bridges over water with their bodies.