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A self-organizing thousand-robot swarm

Following simple programmed rules, autonomous robots arrange themselves into vast, complex shapes

Kilobots

The first thousand-robot flash mob has assembled at Harvard University.

“Form a sea star shape,” directs a computer scientist, sending the command to 1,024 little bots simultaneously via an infrared light. The robots begin to blink at one another and then gradually arrange themselves into a five-pointed star. “Now form the letter K.” 

The ‘K’ stands for Kilobots, the name given to these extremely simple robots, each just a few centimeters across, standing on three pin-like legs. Instead of one highly-complex robot, a “kilo” of robots collaborate, providing a simple platform for the enactment of complex behaviors. 

Just as trillions of individual cells can assemble into an intelligent organism, or a thousand starlings can form a great flowing murmuration across the sky, the Kilobots demonstrate how complexity can arise from very simple behaviors performed en masse. To computer scientists, they also represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence (AI).

This self-organizing swarm was created in the lab of Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. The advance is described in the August 15 issue of Science.  

Most notably, the Kilobots require no micromanagement or intervention once an initial set of instructions has been delivered. The Kilobots also correct their own mistakes. If a traffic jam forms or a robot moves off-course—errors that become much more common in a large group—nearby robots sense the problem and cooperate to fix it.  

The Kilobot robot design and software, originally created in Nagpal’s group at Harvard, are available open-source for non-commercial use. The Kilobots have also been licensed by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development to K-Team, a manufacturer of small mobile robots.

To view the robots in action, click here.

This research was supported in part by the Wyss Institute and by the National Science Foundation.