The Kilobots are an inexpensive system for testing synchronized and collaborative behavior in a very large swarm of robots. Photo courtesy of Michael Rubenstein
Swarm of tiny, collaborative robots will be made available to researchers, educators, and enthusiasts
scientists and engineers at Harvard University have developed and
licensed technology that will make it easy to test collective algorithms
on hundreds, or even thousands, of tiny robots.
Kilobots, the quarter-sized bug-like devices scuttle around on three
toothpick-like legs, interacting and coordinating their own behavior as a
team. A June 2011 Harvard Technical Report demonstrated a collective of
25 machines implementing swarming behaviors such as foraging, formation
control, and synchronization.
Once up and running, the machines are fully autonomous, meaning there is no need for a human to control their actions.
communicative critters were created by members of the Self-Organizing
Systems Research Group led by Radhika Nagpal, the Thomas D. Cabot
Associate 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. Her
team also includes Michael Rubenstein, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS;
and Christian Ahler, a fellow of SEAS and the Wyss Institute.
to a technology licensing deal with the K-Team Corporation, a Swiss
manufacturer of high-quality mobile robots, researchers and robotics
enthusiasts alike can now take command of their own swarm.
key to achieving high-value applications for multi-robot systems in the
future is the development of sophisticated algorithms that can
coordinate the actions of tens to thousands of robots.
Kilobot will provide researchers with an important new tool for
understanding how to design and build large, distributed, functional
systems,” says Michael Mitzenmacher, Area Dean for Computer Science at
“Plus,” he adds, “tiny robots are really cool!”
name “Kilobot” does not refer to anything nefarious; rather, it
describes the researchers’ goal of quickly and inexpensively creating a
collective of a thousand bots.
by nature, such swarms resemble social insects, such as ants and bees,
that can efficiently search for and find food sources in large, complex
environments, collectively transport large objects, and coordinate the
building of nests and other structures.
Robot swarms might one day tunnel through rubble to find survivors, monitor the environment and remove contaminants, and self-assemble to form support structures in collapsed buildings. Photo courtesy of Michael Rubenstein
to reasons of time, cost, and simplicity, the algorithms being
developed today in research labs are only validated in computer
simulation or using a few dozen robots at most.
contrast, the design by Nagpal’s team allows a single user to easily
oversee the operation of a large Kilobot collective, including
programming, powering on, and charging all robots, all of which would be
difficult (if not impossible) using existing robotic systems.
So, what can you do with a thousand tiny little bots?
swarms might one day tunnel through rubble to find survivors, monitor
the environment and remove contaminants, and self-assemble to form
support structures in collapsed buildings.
could also be deployed to autonomously perform construction in
dangerous environments, to assist with pollination of crops, or to
conduct search and rescue operations.
now, the Kilobots are designed to provide scientists with a physical
testbed for advancing the understanding of collective behavior and
realizing its potential to deliver solutions for a wide range of
Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation and the Wyss Institute.