A new algorithm allows controlling swarms of robots via a tablet and a beam of light

Robot swarms controlled with single-finger tablet swipe

A new algorithm developed by American researchers enables operators to control large swarms of robots using a simple tablet computer and a beam of light.

Instead of programming the movements of each robot separately, the algorithm allows the controller to decide about the area where the robots operate.

A simple tap on the tablet’s screen determines where the beam of light appears on the floor. The robots then automatically travel towards the illuminated point, exchanging information between themselves in order to evenly cover the required area.

Swiping across the tablet display drags the beam across the floor, making the robots follow automatically. Two fingers on the display would prompt the swarm to split into two equally-sized groups.

"The field of swarm robotics gets difficult when you expect teams of robots to be as dynamic and adaptive as humans," said Magnus Egerstedt, Schlumberger Professor in Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "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."

Egerstedt’s flexible algorithm provides the robots with a sufficient level of flexibility to harness their abilities in various situations, including search and rescue operations in disaster zones. In the demonstration, each robot constantly measured how much light was around him, whilst also communicating with his neighbours to achieve even coverage.

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

The simplicity of use would allow anyone to control the robots. Egerstedt envisions the robots could be sent in to an area stuck by a tsunami, where they would search for survivors, dividing themselves into equal sections. If some machines were suddenly needed in a new area, they could be redeployed by a tap on the tablet’s display. There are many other potential applications.

"In future, farmers could send machines into their fields to inspect the crops," said Yancy Diaz-Mercado, member of Egerstedt’s team. "Workers on manufacturing floors could direct robots to one side of the warehouse to collect items, then quickly direct them to another area if the need changes."

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