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Droplet Robots: A Physical Particle Swarm

In virtual spaces, a particle swarm is a large number of independent, intelligently-behaving particles, each of which possesses certain properties, such as if one moves, the ones near it are pulled in a certain way, or twisted or turned around, etcetera. They are the closest we have come to a true liquid state in our environments, with each particle affecting those around it, but moving independently. They are often used in medical applications to simulate squishy flesh in a realistic manner.

Now, the first robotic equivalent of a particle swarm has been created by University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor Nikolaus Correll. Correll and his computer science research team, including research associate Dustin Reishus and professional research assistant Nick Farrow, have developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems.

Recently the team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a ping pong ball, which they call “droplets.” When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a “liquid that thinks.”

The droplet robots, each the size of a ping pong ball, swarming together

Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviours such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change – exactly the same as their particle swarm brethren. These behaviours could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks.
He also is continuing work on robotic garden technology he developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009. Correll has been working with Joseph Tanner in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department to further develop the technology, involving autonomous sensors and robots that can tend gardens, in conjunction with a model of a long-term space habitat being built by students.

Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” he said. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”


Dictionary: Distributed Intelligence System

Dictionary: Particle Swarm

CU-Boulder team develops swarm of pingpong ball-sized robots

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