“Swarm Of One” robot is a single machine composed of independent modules

The conversationMy colleagues and I have built a robot composed of many building blocks, such as the cells of a multicellular organism. With no ‘brain’ or central controller in the system, our robot, called Loopy, relies on the collective behavior of all its cells to communicate with the world.

In that sense, we call Loopy a robot swarm. But Loopy can also be seen as one robot, because all cells are connected; therefore Loopy is also ‘a swarm of one’. This research could lead to adaptive robots that adapt their shapes and movements to their environment, for example when cleaning up the environment.

Loopy is a primitive form of multi-cell robot made from a ring of 36 cells. Each cell has a rotating servo – an electric motor that rotates a shaft at a precisely controlled angle of rotation – and sensors. Each cell responds on its own, with no input from any of the others except its two immediate neighbors. As the servos move, the angles between the cells determine the overall shape of Loopy.

Loopy can transform into different shapes and perform a range of movements. But random shapes and movements are not helpful. We hoped that something interesting would come out of self-organization; that is, the spontaneous creation of order out of disorder, without directly telling Loopy what to do. It turned out that Loopy forms stable shapes that recover after Loopy encounters obstacles.

Loopy exhibits spontaneous shapes and movements.

The famous mathematician Alan Turing was interested in the idea of ​​self-organization as early as 1952. He even imagined a ring of cells. Turing postulated the existence of chemicals that spread and react with each other, leading to the creation of patterns in nature, such as those on bird feathers and shells. This self-organization approach using simulated chemicals allowed Loopy to spontaneously form and transition between different lobed shapes.

Why it matters

Engineering systems, and robots in particular, are designed primarily with a top-down approach, where human designers anticipate the conditions the system may encounter and plan ahead through hardware designs, software programs, or both. The problem is that the designers probably won’t be there when the robot finds itself in an unexpected situation.

This micromanagement approach to robot design is like giving children a detailed manual when sending them to school on the first day. A better approach to parenting would be to provide general guidance and feedback, and expect the children to solve the problems themselves. Likewise, a key motivation for Loopy’s development is to unleash the power of collective ‘intelligence’ from the bottom up, so that Loopy can find new solutions on its own when a new situation arises; for example, finding the right shape for oneself to adapt to the environment.

What other research is being done?

The vision of programmable matter has existed for decades, but tangible examples are scarce. Although researchers have explored complex shape formation through self-assembly or reconfigurable robotic systems, these often rely on predetermined shapes.

As with Loopy, researchers have applied Turing’s self-organization concept to swarms of robots, such as the small, simple, autonomous Kilobots, leading to the creation of complex shapes. However, unlike Loopy, the physical forces between ‘cells’ are not used to influence the final form and behavior of the collective.

What’s next?

We want Loopy to develop more lifelike abilities, such as navigating unforeseen situations, seeking better conditions, acquiring resources, and mitigating threats. This vision extends to ultimately enabling Loopy to perform tasks assigned by humans, bridging the gap between the open creativity of self-organization and human guidance.

The Research Brief is a brief look at interesting academic work.The conversation

Yu Guprofessor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, West Virginia University and Trevor Smith, PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, West Virginia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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