October 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College


Apologies, I do realise that the title of this blog kind of implies I wouldn’t be mentioning tiny robots but I figured that by breaking the rules right from the start, at least it can only get better – right?

Somehow, there always seems to be an overriding fear that we’re going to be overrun by armies of autonomous, super-intelligent robots whenever there’s a significant development in robotics, artificial intelligence or nanotechnology. However, the recent creation of tiny, low-cost, autonomous robots at Harvard University may actually help researchers understand how robots behave in large groups. They just had to call them Kilobots though, didn’t they?

The Kilobots are three-legged robots about the size of a 10-pence piece, consisting of a small rechargeable battery, a micro controller, an infrared transceiver, an LED and two motors which vibrate the legs allowing them to move around. Not exactly the kind of weaponry needed to take over the world just yet, unless they’re intent on tickling everyone to death. With the right programming, the team at Harvard were able to get groups of Kilobots to cooperatively forage for ‘food’, follow a leader, disperse in their environment and get their LEDs flashing in-sync. After the program is set off, the Kilobots can successfully complete these tasks without any further human intervention.

In the real world, groups of autonomous robots like this might be indispensably useful in exploring hostile environments, perhaps helping to collect data on the next planetary rover missions, for example. In disaster situations, these robots could really come into their own; getting into places humans can’t reach or even cleaning up hazardous materials.

Ultimately, the low-cost of the Kilobot (about £10 each) will allow researchers to test out their sophisticated algorithms with hundreds or even thousands of autonomous robots, gaining invaluable insight into how these algorithms function in the real world. Before, they would have been limited to computer simulations or significantly smaller group sizes.

The Kilobots are now being produced by a Swiss company after reaching a licensing agreement with Harvard, available to both researchers and enthusiasts – so you can start prototyping your tiny robot army if you’re that way inclined. But do give us a heads up if they turn nasty on you.

Image: Harvard/Michael Rubenstein