The Kilobots are an inexpensive system for testing synchronised and collaborative behaviour in a very large swarm of robots.

Swarm of tiny collaborative robots developed by Harvard

Computer scientists and engineers at Harvard University have developed and licensed technology which will make it easy to test collective algorithms on hundreds, or even thousands, of tiny robots.

The Kilobots are tiny bug-like devices that scuttle around on three toothpick-like legs, interacting and coordinating their own behaviour as a team.

"The 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 SEAS. "Plus," he adds, "tiny robots are really cool!"

The K-Team Corporation, a Swiss manufacturer of robots, has licensed the robots.

The researchers hope that that one day the swarm of robots might be able to tunnel through rubble to find survivors, monitor the environment and remove contaminants, and self-assemble to form support structures in collapsed buildings.

But for now, the Kilobots are designed to provide scientists with a physical testbed for advancing the understanding of collective behaviour and realising its potential to deliver solutions for a wide range of challenges.

The Kilobots 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.

Due 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.

In 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.

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