Skip to main content

Algorithm lets swarms of robots work together to create shapes without colliding

Shape Formation in Homogeneous Swarms Using Local Task Swapping

The idea of swarms of comparatively low-cost robots that are able to work together to pull off feats that single large robots are unable to do is pretty exciting. But getting large numbers of robots to carry out coordinated activities without bumping into one another is hard work. The challenge of achieving this is one reason why swarm robotics remains a work in progress, rather than something that is routinely seen in the real world.

Researchers at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, recently achieved an impressive demonstration, however. They have developed and tested an algorithm for a decentralized swarm of robots which lets them reliably, safely, and efficiently converge to form a predetermined shape in under a minute. The researchers have shown that their algorithm works both on a simulation of 1,024 robots and on a swarm of 100 real robots in a laboratory. Impressively, the robots are able to perform their shape-throwing without getting in one another’s way. That’s easier said than done.

“The robots are given a set of goal points that represent the shape to be formed and they have to figure out as a group which robot goes to which goal, and how do they get there with no collisions,” Mike Rubenstein, assistant professor of computer science and mechanical engineering, told Digital Trends. “The main idea of the controller is that, whenever a robot senses another robot, they check to see if swapping goal locations will reduce the total distance traveled by the pair. If so, they swap goals. A side effect of this behavior is that they will automatically avoid collisions.”

Mike Rubinstein/Northwestern University

Robots rearranging themselves into giant shapes, such as letters, sounds like it might have limited usefulness. (Automated cheerleaders at future robot sports games?) However, Rubinstein said that this system could actually be applied in a broad range of possible applications. Scenarios in which robots adhering to a specific formation is important could be useful for everything from teaming up to carry objects to, potentially, forming together like the Power Rangers’ Megazord to establish larger modular self-configurable robots.

“The hope is that by avoiding a centralized system, the swarm behavior can more easily scale to large numbers, and is more robust to individual failures,” he said.

This approach isn’t perfect in every scenario, though. “A centralized approach can usually provide more efficient motion, and is easier to guarantee good behaviour when all the robots are working as desired,” Rubenstein explained. “A more centralized approach would be better in cases of small swarms.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Robotics.

Editors' Recommendations

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
Meet OffWorld, the startup that wants to mine the moon with a swarm of robots
offworld robots


Will the future of space exploration involve swarms of smart robots aiding astronauts by mining for resources, or even autonomously preparing other planets for human habitation? It sounds like (and is) the stuff of weighty science fiction epics. But it’s also the plan of a Californian company named OffWorld, which is busy developing the necessary technology to corner this market in the coming years.

Read more
Robotics company is offering $125K if you’ll let a robot use your face
will computers revolt preparing for the future of ai ex machina xxl

Ever wonder why all the T-800 model Terminators look like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Presumably at some point, in that fictional world, there was a real person who served as the model for Skynet’s advanced killing machines. In fact, he may have signed over the rights to his physical appearance in something like the deal that U.K.-based additive manufacturing company Geomiq is currently offering.

On the orders of a robotics company client, Geomiq is promising $125,000 to a person willing to submit their face as the model for a new line of humanoid robots. The robots are reportedly intended for some kind of elderly care and will be unveiled next year. While most entrants will not get the $125k prize, the person selected as the face model will scoop up the cash in exchange for waiving all rights to their appearance.

Read more
Youbionic’s new robot appendage lends a hand without costing an arm and a leg
youbionic new 250 arm inshot 20191003 221501264

Youbionic Human Arm

We've covered all kinds of amazing robot arm projects at Digital Trends over the years. While they have featured plenty of awesome tech and some pretty impressive use cases, these robot arms have also carried a high price tag stretching into the thousands of dollars. That’s something that Federico Ciccarese, the engineer behind low-cost robotic arm company Youbionic, is working hard to change.

Read more