World's Largest Swarm of Miniature Robot Submarines

A fleet of little robot submarines is learning to cooperatively perform tasks underwater

2 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

World's Largest Swarm of Miniature Robot Submarines
Image: CoCoRo Project

Forty one tiny robot submarines is a lot of tiny robot submarines. It’s so many, in fact, that controlling them individually doesn’t make sense, and the only way to go is to give them levels of swarm intelligence, so that each individual robot can take care of itself while the swarm as a whole completes an objective.

The CoCoRo (Collective Cognitive Robotics) Project, sponsored by the European Commission, has been working with a heterogeneous swarm of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) since 2011, and the most important thing you need to know about these robots is that 20 of them are named Jeff.

Just look at those cute lil’ thrusters on the yellow and white robo-subs (those are called Lily)! Adorable.

But the highlight of the project is Jeff:

That’s a lot of agility for an underwater robot, and Jeffs are powerful too, able to swim upstream against a current of 1 m/s. The Lily robots aren’t quite as burly, so in the swarm, they stay higher in the water to provide a communications link between the Jeff robots, the base station, and the rest of the world.

Each AUV is capable of operating on its own, and small groups share data between themselves, and then the entire swarm makes decisions based on the collective data. The advantages here are the same as with any robot swarm: it’s versatile, adaptable, and very robust to failures of each individual robot. You could lose a handful of Lilys or Jeffs and it would be very sad, but the mission could continue.

The specific swarm behaviors that the robots employ are modeled on swarming experts: namely, fish, birds, social insects, and even slime molds, which is very cool:

A group of Lily robots can achieve a coherent shoaling or flocking configuration by emitting and receiving pulsed light signals. Similar to slime mold or fireflies, such pulsed signals are relayed from one agent to the next, forming signal waves that move through the whole swarm. We use such waves to keep the swarm of Lily robots together as a group, to coordinate the swarm and to move it in a desired direction.

In terms of practical applications, one possible scenario includes underwater search, where Jeff robots spread out to locate a target, signal each other when it’s found, and then call Lily robots over for help communicating with the surface:

We're happy to be able to report that Jeff and Lily have been able to occasionally escape from the laboratory to have adventures in swimming pools, lakes, and rivers. The researchers will be posting new videos over the rest of the year, so we’ll have plenty more of them, and here’s something to look forward to:

[ CoCoRo Project ] via [ RoboHub ]

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