One Thousand Self-Organizing Robots Emulate Elements in Nature

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A few months ago, in a desperate attempt to save time in cleaning up after an active toddler, we bought the Roomba iRobot, an automated vacuum cleaner. The awe we felt from watching the Roomba pick up hair and Cheerios under the bed must have been the same awe that man felt after inventing fire. A hands-free, self-guided, self-charging machine doing our dirty work: now that’s technology! As the Roomba did its thing, my husband and I imagined a time when the big Roomba would come with little baby Roombas that would spawn from its base, and reach inaccessible turfs like the corners of the walls, curtains, or window sills, clean-up, and go back to base to charge with mama Roomba.

That time seems quite upon us, with the invention of the thousand self-organizing robots by Harvard researchers, Michael Rubenstein, Alejandro Cornejo, Radhika Nagpal, published today in Science. The behavior of these robots emulates similar elements in nature, such as self-organizing ants and termites that practice meticulous coordination to achieve complex tasks. This adds to the myriad technological advances stemming from a basic understanding of biological life. Self-organization is a behavior seen throughout nature: in bees, ants, birds, and even bacteria. In fact, the bacterium I studied for my doctoral work, Myxococcus xanthus, is a remarkable species, capable of self-organizing via chemical communication with members of its colony to accomplish motility and predation on bacteria of other species. The Kilobots, as the researchers call their army of thousand robots, perceive each other through the transmission and reception of infrared signals from their bases, to independently self-organize into complex shapes from stars to the letter K.

And what could these Kilobots be useful for? A variety of applications come to mind, from cleaning up chemical spills to environmental surveillance for pathogens, to digging for mines, and, most importantly, cleaning up the corners of your house!

The only thing now left to do is to give these Kilobots a cute body. I wonder if Wall-E is available!

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