[Paleopsych] The Engineer Online: Robot swarms cloud danger
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Thu May 19 19:10:44 UTC 2005
Robot swarms cloud danger
Industry Channel: Military & Defence
Source: The Engineer Online
Engineers at the University of Pennsylvania have received a $5
million grant from the US Department of Defense to develop
large-scale "swarms" of robots that could work together to thoroughly
search large areas from the ground and sky.
The Scalable Swarms of Autonomous Robots and Sensors or the Swarms
Project, as it is known takes organisational cues from the natural
world where tens or even hundreds of small, independent robots work
together to accomplish specific tasks, such as finding a bomb in a
Penn's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP)
Laboratory will receive the five-year grant from the federal
government under the Defense Department's Multidisciplinary University
Research Initiative program. The Swarms project is based upon the
success of the GRASP Lab's smaller-scale Multiple Autonomous Robotics
(MARS) project, which managed the movement and behaviour of about a
"Our objective here is to develop the software framework and tools for
a new generation of autonomous robots, ultimately to the point where
an operator can supervise an immense swarm of small robots through
unfamiliar terrain," said Vijay Kumar, director of the GRASP Lab at
Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science and principal
investigator of the Swarms Project. "There is an obvious military
application, to be sure, but the same principles apply whether you are
looking for a terrorist in an urban environment or localising the
source of a chemical spill in a city."
While MARS demonstrated the feasibility of such a program, the Swarms
Project will take the complexity involved to a new level. To get a
better grasp of swarming behaviour, Kumar and his colleagues are
looking to the natural world for inspiration.
In biology, swarming behaviours arise whenever there are large numbers
of individuals that lack either the communication or computational
capabilities required for centralised control. The Swarms Project
brings together a cross-disciplinary team of researchers with
expertise in artificial intelligence, control theory, robotics,
systems engineering and biology. They will take cues from the sort of
group behaviours that appear in beehives, ant colonies, wolf packs,
bird flocks and fish schools. But the GRASP researchers are also
working with molecular and cell biologists interested in the
complicated signalling processes and group behaviours that go on
inside and among cells.
"There are a number of interesting behaviours seen in the natural
world that we'd like to incorporate, at least analogously," Kumar
said. "We might want to see the stalking behaviour of a wolf pack, the
searching behaviour of ants or honeybees or the quorum-sensing
behaviour of bacteria.
"In fact, much like ants or bees, these robots will be rather dumb
individually, but collectively they'll be capable of performing very
While the GRASP engineers are not attempting to recreate biology, they
are striving to understand what general principals in biological
behaviour that might be useful in getting robots to think as a group.
Eventually, Kumar and his colleagues will demonstrate their
biologically inspired algorithms on practical vehicle platforms, such
as the robot blimps, unmanned aerial vehicles and the small
"clodbuster" four-wheeled robots already in use at GRASP.
"The MARS project was really about getting robots to interact in a
physical space, to see their world and react to the obstacles around
them," Kumar said. "With the Swarms Project, we are going beyond the
orbit of MARS in that we are getting robots to talk amongst themselves
about their image of the world around them."
Footage of robots in recent MARS program tests can be seen here.
Additional information on the Swarms Project is available here.
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