Self-assembling swarm robots are not a particularly new innovation. In 2011, a team of Harvard roboticists introduced their line of homogeneous Kilobots, eventually increasing their ‘swarm’ capability from 5 or so robots working in unison to over 1,000. Now, nearly four years after the Harvard team was able to coordinate over 1,000 self-assembling swarm robots, a team of robotically-minded researchers at the University of California-San Diego have definitively one-upped their counterparts in Cambridge.
UC-San Diego’s Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab is headed by Michael Tolley, whose team has now developed swarm robots that are customizable, self-assembling, self-deploying, and perhaps most importantly, heterogeneous in their structure and function. This heterogeneity is the primary distinguisher from the Harvard team’s fleet of swarm robots, and it is not a minor distinction. Just like any great sports team or business, a mix of skill sets amongst the totality of a team is more desirable than redundancy. Further, these robots require very little human intervention during the assembly process aside from the soldering required of an outside power source.
Lasers handle the process of cutting out the robots’ bodies from flat sheets, with the robots then self-folding and eventually controlling their own movements which are powered through vibration, just as bristlebots are. The heterogeneous designs of the swarm allow for each to move differently according to their shape, weight, and leg length, which collectively affect the bot’s speed, maneuverability patterns, and payload capability.
With a straight-line rate of speed of 23 cm. per second, the UC-SD swarm bots are considered quick for their size. Composed primarily of composite laminates including steel, paperboard, kapton, polystyrene, and adhesive which melding each of the robot’s layers together, these heterogeneous swarm robots are the beginning of the team’s promising research.
Additional work includes further developing the capability to deploy several self-folding laminate robots simultaneously and have them complete a coverage or search task with onboard sensing. We plan to investigate different wireless communication modalities, localization algorithms, and swarm control techniques as steps towards this goal, a statement issued by the UC-SD research team reads.
Having already seen the real-world applications of swarm robotics in several fields including the military, progress toward heterogeneity in swarm robotics will only increase the range of potential uses to which the technology can be applied.