Kilobots: The New Swarm to Take Over the World…

Kilobots to take over the world, $14 dollars at a time!? A Harvard University research group – Self-Organizing Systems – have designed and made available an extremely simple and cheap robot capable of working as a collective, a team. Looking like a peice of 1950’s electronics the Kilobot is able to move, sense and react. Is this the most dangerous robot ever invented or an essential tool for investigating robotics ?

Intended to be a research tool for programmers developing control logic for self organising robots, with $14 worth of parts they are cheap enough to allow testing of 1000’s of robots in a swarmcollective group of robots working together -, something even the big research groups like MIT couldn’t afford to do without Kilobot. The Kilobots require a hard surface to operate so we are all safe, until the world is laminated that is.

The Kilobots have been developed by the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group to allow experimenting with extremely large swarms of robots, potentially in the thousands. The Kilobots system allows researchers to quickly deploy and test new control code / algorithms. In the would of the swarm numbers are king. A popular commercially available robot, the e-puck costs over $1300, equipped with an infrared communication ring for collective operations and other advanced components, this cost has limited the size of the swarms to small numbers, usually in the tens of robots. At $14 per robot the Kilobot changes this.

Swarm robotics and the study of collective behaviour is a promising field of robotics that has been gaining momentum in the last few years. This form of robotics avoids all of the problems associated with overly complex robotics, time to program, debug, complex mechanics, basically everything about a modern robot is very complex and expensive. Kilbots on the other hand are more like insects, like ants bumbling around exploring the world the Kilobots are based on extremely simple logic, there are no supercomputers or programmed emotions, only the essentials are present. The kinds of behaviour that Kilobots are good at can be seen in the videos on the Kilobots page. They demonstrate very insect like behaviour but complete quite complex tasks. The Forege and return home program simulates ants exploring for food, laying a trail and returning home with the food. The synchronization program demonstrated 25 Kilobots synchronizing watches using their infrared communications.

To make controlling the swarm easy, an overhead controller – using an InfraRed controller, The Kilomote – directs the Kilobots. All control functions can be transmitted to the swarm as a whole, avoiding the need to individually deal with robots. All menial functions like charge or even turning them on and off are controlled via the Kilomote. Kilomite has the ability to program the entire Swarm, the system is able to quickly deploy and test new code / algorithms. These algorithms are generally meant to control collectives of hundreds or even thousands of Kilobots; however, for reasons of cost, time, or complexity, they are generally validated in simulation only, or on a group of a few 10’s of robots.With only 10 robots in a swarm individual attention to each robot is possible. The Kilomote is mounted over the test bench and connected to the controlling PC, key to controlling all of the Kilobots with a a single command, no matter how may are involved in a test. The battery test function is triggered by the Kilomote causing each Kilobot to display its battery charge using a coloured led.

Communications and proximity sensing is taken care of using an infrared transceiver – infrared LED transmitter and infrared photodiode receiver -, mounted on the underside of the Kilobot, pointing down. By reflecting IR light off the hard surface of the test bench the Kilobots are able to be aware of other kilobots judging direction and distance to near-by Kilobots, as well as perform general communications. The Kilomote also bounces its signal off the surface to the underside IR receiver of the Kilobots. A simple but very effective system. The IR transceivers are capable of transmitting/receiving up to 30 kb/s of data with robots up to 10cm away.

The Kilobots have no wheels, legs or apparent form of locomotion. In an effort to keep the costs low the Kilobots abandoned tradition forms of motion, instead opting for two vibrators capable of making Kilobot rotate left, rotate right and move forward. Working in the same way a vibrating mobile phone will move around on a coffee table or hard surface – centripetal forces -, the Kilobots can move at 1cm/sec, not light speed but still enough for their purpose. The down side to this kind of movement is it provides no location or distance information. Walking and turning wheels allow an easy way to tell how far you have travelled, vibrating across the table doesn’t provide this kind of information – optometry.

The on-board lithium ion battery is good for three hours of continuous operation, the other benefit to the piezoelectric vibrators is the tiny amount of power they use unlike electric motors. Once the batteries starts to run low the Kilobots can be returned to the charger base where they are charged. The Kilobots also have the ability to drop into sleep mode, in this mode batteries are conserved until a signal or sensor tells the Kilobot to wake up.

The brains of the Kilobot is a simple Atmega328 microprocessor – running at 8 Mhz and with 32K of memory – runs the robot behavior program as well as interfacing with all the low-level electronics such as motors, communication, power circuitry, and the RGB LED. The microprocessor is able to be reprogrammed over the IR signal from the Kilomote, once the program has been received the Kilomote will reboot and start executing the new program.

Applications for swarm robots are actually the same as for most machines and robots. Assembly, cleaning, gathering etc are all a possibilities being investigated by Mining and agricultural industries. Cleaning and maintenance of hard to get places, could be easily taken care of by swarms of little cleaners. Sensing in dangerous environments and other tasks done with difficulty by today’s robots could be taken over by swarms of cheap Kilobots.

While the Kilobots may be defeated by a carpeted floor – limiting their ability to take over the world – they are the first large-scale robotic swarm commercially available to anyone and everyone. Kilobot’s may eventually even make it into the hobby stores. Building and programming your own swarms could become the new model building, hobby of choice.

Further information at Kilobots site

Buddha’s Brother out…