image credit: Harvard

Robotics and robots as assistant technology are on the rise. Harvard’s latest robots show us that even when tiny, programmed creatures gather together, they can accomplish great things.

Harvard scientist Michael Rubenstein, in conjunction with two other Harvard scientists, has created a 1,024-swarm robot army that, with a little human guidance and programming, can assemble into various shapes such as a star or the letter “K.” The tiny robots are called “kilobots” and are no larger than the size of three nickels placed together. The robots only cost $14 to build each one.

While inexpensive and small, the robots are still in the early stages. There are robot errors that occur, and the Harvard team is researching how to help robots “self-reprogram” when errors occur to “jolt” robots back into place. The robots themselves can currently measure their distance from the shape, as well as where to go, and assemble accordingly. This is excellent, but future programs may be able to program the robots to assemble in these shapes automatically – without the robots having to have “marker robots” to assist their activities.

The kilobots have been successful at teaching the Harvard researchers one thing: how simplified computer-simulated creations are. “When you make simulations, you’re always simplifying the world. We realized there are some errors we never even considered putting into simulations,” said Harvard Computer Science and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering Professor Radhika Nagpal. And it is these errors that researchers will work out over time.

For now, the 1,024-swarm kilobot robot army gives researchers a reason to dream. If robots will prove to be useful in future situations with search and rescue victims, for example, then researchers have a good start in helping robots to transform our world.