Robot swarm conducts bookshelf heist, wins video award

It’s not exactly “Welcome our new robot overlords” material, but a new, award-winning video showing a robot “swarm” teaming up for a bookshelf heist is still pretty impressive — if only for the Ocean’s 11 vibe the whole experiment quickly takes on.

In Swarmanoid, The Movie, Marco Dorigo and his colleagues at the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, follow a gang of robots programmed to use their unique attributes in order to locate, reach, and take possession of a specific book located on a high shelf. The video won the short film competition at last week’s Conference on Artificial Intelligence in San Francisco.

The robotic swarm is composed of three distinct types of robots: foot-bots, eye-bots, and hand-bots. The foot-bots are wheeled transport devices that can connect to the other two robots, while the eye-bots are flying, camera-equipped robots that are able to send signals to the other two types of ‘bots and connect to the ceiling for stationary observation. The hand-bots are equipped with two large, gripping appendages that allow them to pick up and move objects, and climb certain structures.

The Swarmanoid video shows what happens when the robots are given the task of locating a book on a shelf somewhere within the current structure.

The foot-bots and eye-bots first survey the environment, then when the eye-bot locates the book, it anchors itself to the ceiling nearby and alerts the rest of the swarm. Foot-bots and eye-bots then mark out a path to the target while another pair of foot-bots attach themselves to a hand-bot, readying it for transport.

After transporting the hand-bot to the shelf, the ‘bot climbs up to the appropriate shelf, using a small grappling hook-like tool to help steady itself and support its weight. Once it has the book, it lowers itself back down to the floor using the support rope.

According to a report on the experiment at New Scientist, Dorigo envisions using teams of robots for other, more important tasks down the road. For example, a team of fire-fighting robots or rescue robots could become standard equipment in office buildings.

However, that’s all in the far future, as the ‘bots are currently only able to perform simple tasks like the book retrieval seen in the video. That hasn’t stopped Dorigo and his colleagues form thinking big, though, as the research team now has an army of 30 foot-bots, 10 eye-bots, and eight hand-bots at their disposal.

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