The Kilobots are a swarm of more than 1,000 tiny robots that work together to form shapes.

  Photo Credit: Harvard

Photo Credit: Harvard

Swarms of more than a thousand small robots may be the future of robotics. A team of researchers have created a swarm of 1,024 robots, called the Kilobots, that work together to form shapes and letters.

“The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple — and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible,” said Professor Radhika Nagpal of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “At some level, you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself.”

The idea behind the swarm is to demonstrate how simple machines can perform complex tasks when working together. Each robot is only a couple of centimeters in diameter and have tiny legs that vibrate to move. Users can give them instructions, like "make a letter K." The robots will then communicate with each other via infrared to perform the task, without any further human interaction. 

This marks the first time more than 100 robots have demonstrated the ability to work collaboratively and collectively. More significantly, this makes robots operating as biological cells to form organisms, animals and humans a possibility.

“Biological collectives involve enormous numbers of cooperating entities – whether you think of cells or insects or animals – that together accomplish a single task that is a magnitude beyond the scale of any individual,” said Michael Rubenstein, lead author on the study, which was published in the journal Science.

The Kilobots could also lead to the development of more complex artificial intelligence and machines that are able to build themselves out of tiny swarms of robots.

“We can simulate the behavior of large swarms of robots, but a simulation can only go so far,” said Nagpal. “The real-world dynamics — the physical interactions and variability — make a difference, and having the Kilobots to test the algorithm on real robots has helped us better understand how to recognise and prevent the failures that occur at these large scales.”

The small robots are currently only able to make shapes. Researchers want to refine the technology by creating smaller robots and eventually design them on a nano scale.

See the Kilobots in action in the video below.