Robot swarms controlled by swipe of a finger and lasers

12 May 2015

Researchers in the US have discovered a way to control swarms of robots, by using a tablet, a finger and a beam of light.

The Georgia Institute of Technology clever clogs developed an algorithm that allows you to tap on the tablet, determining where the light will land, before the robots turn, face the right direction, and head towards the illumination.

It’s very Age of Empires or Command and Conquer, which is pretty cool indeed. And just like in those highly addictive, war-mongering games, you can drag the light across the floor, still using just the tablet, and watch the little gadgets flock towards it.

“It’s not possible for a person to control a thousand or a million robots by individually programming each one where to go,” said Magnus Egerstedt, Schlumberger Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“Instead, the operator controls an area that needs to be explored. Then the robots work together to determine the best ways to accomplish the job.”

Indeed, when thinking of disaster situations, such as Nepal’s current troubles following a spate of earthquakes, this could prove tremendously helpful further down the line.

And not happy with just commanding a swarm of helper robots to a given point, Georgia Tech’s robotic algorithims allow for flexibility, with robots making their own decisions on whether to continue with the task at hand or not.

That’s a bit scary, and it’s all in the recently published paper on this subject.

In the example given, the robots are aware of each other, and how much light is in any given area. This allows them to ‘make room’ for colleagues.

“The robots are working together to make sure that each one has the same amount of light in its own area,” said Egerstedt.

“The field of swarm robotics gets difficult when you expect teams of robots to be as dynamic and adaptive as humans,” Egerstedt explained. “People can quickly adapt to changing circumstances, make new decisions and act.

“Robots typically can’t. It’s hard for them to talk and form plans when everything is changing around them.”

Robots image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic