Even Brainless Robots Can Show Swarm Behavior

Toothbrush heads with vibrating motors exhibit similar behavior to groups of social insects

2 min read
Even Brainless Robots Can Show Swarm Behavior

Bristlebots are robots without sensors or brains that do things that robots without sensors or brains do. As it turns out, this is a lot more than you might expect, since researchers at Harvard have shown that if you stick enough of them in a small space, they self-organize into swarms.

A Bristlebot consists of nothing more than a toothbrush head (a custom 3D-printed one, in this case) hooked up to a pager vibrating motor and battery. You can build one yourself in five minutes for a couple bucks, making this one of the simplest and cheapest robots in existence. It's a little bit surprising, then, that these little guys are good for some serious research.

Roboticists at Harvard decided to stuff a whole bunch of Bristlebots into a small area to see what happened, and even with no brains or sensors, some intelligent-seeming behavior spontaneously manifested itself:

We show that when Bristle-Bots are confi ned to a limited arena with a soft boundary, increasing the density drives a transition from a disordered and uncoordinated motion to organized collective motion either as a swirling cluster or a collective dynamical stasis. This transition is regulated by a single parameter, the relative magnitude of spinning and walking in a single automaton. We explain this using quantitative experiments and simulations that emphasize the role of the agent shape, environment, and con finement via boundaries. Our study shows how the behavioral repertoire of these physically interacting automatons controlled by one parameter translates into the mechanical intelligence of swarms.

The video below illustrates what happens:

So, as the video says, here's the real question now: if robots without brains can exhibit swarm behavior, does that logically mean that every animal that exhibits swarm behavior (including people) must therefore not have any brains? Yeah, I'm fairly certain that that's the way it's got to work.

[ Paper ] via [ Evil Mad Scientist ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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