Floating Robotic Shipping Containers Team Up to Create Islands and Runways

DARPA wants swarms of modular robotic boats to form structures on water

2 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Groups of modular robotic boats form structures on water.

Well, it was only a matter of time: first, there were robot swarms on the ground. Then, there were robot swarms in the air. And now, we’ve got robot swarms taking over a swimming pool. Run for the hills! Or really, you’ll probably be fine running for any sort of dry land if you want to escape this swarm of robotic boats. But why would you want to do that? It’s not like they’re part of some sort of DARPA project that will one day take over the world or something. Nope, definitely nothing like that.

I guess we can’t realistically promise that any swarm of robots doesn’t have world domination on its minds. But until it’s demonstrably too late, we’ll just keep on calling them cute. And these robotic boats from the University of Pennsylvania are totally cute.

Mark Yim and his students are trying to get this big fleet of small robotic boats to cooperate to form all sorts of useful structures. By coupling together, a large enough swarm of these things is capable of forming, bridges, runways, or even islands. UPenn has over 100 of ’em, each one of which is controlled with a Gumstix and uses four separate motors to enable omnidirectional movement and zero-radius turns. According to this article in the Daily Pennsylvanian:

“Last Wednesday, the objective was to get the boats to form a bridge across a corner of the pool and drive a car across the bridge. The week before, the boats successfully configured themselves into an island for one of Engineering professor Vijay Kumar’s quadrotor drones to land on.”

Come on, that’s pretty cool, right?

What DARPA wants to have happen here is to (eventually) scale this system up to boats the size of shipping containers, since shipping containers are cheap, everywhere, and easy to transport and manage. You could fill a container ship with these modules and dump them all into the water near a disaster zone, tell them that you need a runway, and they’d all zip around and form a nice big flat stabilized runway for you. When you’re done, or you need something else, the modules will unhook themselves and either reconfigure into something different or queue up to get collected and moved on to wherever else they’re needed. It’s cheap, fast infrastructure. Let’s call it Instastructure.™

Oh, and by the way, naming all the boats after period table elements? Epically geeky. Love it.

[ DARPA ] and [ MODLAB ] via [ Daily Pennsylvanian ]

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