An Army of Small Robots [Preview]

For robot designers these days, small is beautiful

A group of terrorists has stormed into an office building and taken an unknown number of people hostage. They have blocked the entrances and covered the windows. No one outside can see how many they are, what weapons they carry or where they are holding their hostages. But suddenly a SWAT team bursts into the room and captures the assailants before they can even grab their weapons. How did the commandos get the information they needed to move so confidently and decisively?

The answer is a team of small, coordinated robots. They infiltrated the building through the ventilation system and methodically moved throughout the ducts. Some were equipped with microphones to monitor conversations, others with small video cameras, still others with sensors that sniffed the air for chemical or biological agents. Working together, they radioed this real-time information back to the authorities.

This is roughly the scenario that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) presented to robotics researchers in 1998. Their challenge was to develop tiny reconnaissance robots that soldiers could carry on their backs and scatter on the floor like popcorn. On the home front, firefighters and search-and-rescue workers could toss these robots through windows and let them scoot around to look for trapped victims or sniff out toxic materials. For now, these scenarios remain well beyond the state of the art. Yet the vision of minirobots has captured the attention of leading robot designers. Rather than concentrating on a few large platforms bristling with sensors (like Swiss Army knives on wheels), the focus these days is shifting toward building fleets of small, light and simple robots.

In principle, Lilliputian robots have numerous advantages over their bulkier cousins. They can crawl through pipes, inspect collapsed buildings and hide in inconspicuous niches. A well-organized group of them can exchange sensor information to map objects that cannot be easily comprehended from a single vantage point. They can come to the aid of one another to scale obstacles or recover from a fall. Depending on the situation, the team leader can send in a bigger or smaller number of robots. If one robot fails, the entire mission is not lost; the rest can carry on.

But diminutive robots require a new design philosophy. They do not have the luxury of abundant power and space, as do their larger cousins, and they cannot house all the components necessary to execute a given mission. Even carrying something as compact as a video camera can nearly overwhelm a little robot. Consequently their sensors, processing power and physical strength must be distributed among several robots, which must then work in unison. Such robots are like ants in a colony: weak and vulnerable on their own but highly effective when they join forces.

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