Swarms of tiny robots could soon be at our beck and call

29 Nov 2016

Robot helpers, you say? Image: Caracarafoto/Shutterstock

Researchers have developed a novel way to use swarms of tiny, 21mm-high robots as table-top assistants. They handle display and interaction.

Picture the scene: You’re at your office desk and your phone is out of reach. You fear stretching would both injure your delicate, human body and waste valuable modicums of energy.

What do you do? The answer might be coming soon, in the shape of dozens of miniature, robotic helpers called ‘Zooids’.

Swarm robots Zooids

Named after individual creatures made from division, ultimately making up a colonial organism, Zooids are responsive bots that can interact with the user. They can perform various, limited (but kind of cool) tasks.

A team of researchers from Stanford University, Inria and Université Paris-Saclay have developed the bots, each 26mm in diameter and moving on wheels.

The platform consists of the swarm, a radio base-station, a high-speed DLP structured light projector for optical tracking and a software framework for application development and control.

The research and supporting video shows the potential of the table-top swarm of Zooids.

Hardly the robotic stylings of Boston Dynamics’ many humanoid robots capturing the public’s attention of late, nor the finesse of Festo’s butterfly or chameleon robots from last year.

However, the control and usefulness of the Zooids is obvious.

To control the Zooids, the team has a projector-based tracking system for robot position tracking. Using a high frame rate (3000Hz) projector, a sequence of grey-coded patterns are projected onto a flat surface.

Then, photodiodes within the robot independently decode into a location within the projected area.

When the robot arrives within 5cm of its destination, it slows down to its minimum velocity and once within 1cm of the destination, it stops and orients itself as commanded by the application programmer.

The paper documenting this research is very detailed, with investigations into everything from display types to varied environments.

The team hopes the work “will spur more research in swarm user interfaces”, leading to bigger and better variants.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic