Design News, April 2013

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Automation & Control robotic Droplets Will Assemble Satellites Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder are developing small, swarming robots that will assemble a spacestation or a satellite, or clean up oil spills on Earth. By Ann R. ThRyfT, SenioR TechnicAl ediToR SoURCE: UnivERSity of ColoRAdo, BoUldER r esearchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder 10 of the droplets are now working and some of the software are developing small, swarming robots — dubbed is written, but the robots aren't solving any useful tasks yet. by the team as "droplets" — that will be able to "We are still just testing each individual robot, getting the accomplish a variety of tasks. Possible uses include very low-level communication between two robots working." building a space station or a satellite, self-assembling into a Reishus says that, after the droplets are completed, the piece of hardware after being launched into space, or cleanteam will have a platform that can be used for conducting ing up an oil spill on Earth. various experiments with swarm robotics, whatever those Swarm robotics is a fast-changing, quickly growing area of might be. robotics research and development. We've reported on a swarm of "hedgehog" robots being developed by Stanford University to explore space, and swarms that can play Beethoven, or repair coral reefs. We've also reported on the robotic self-assembling pebbles developed in Daniela Rus' Distributed Robotics Laboratory at MIT, where the leader of the University of Colorado team, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Nikolaus Correll, did post-doc work. The University of Colorado team has built a swarm 20 strong. The droplets form a "liquid that thinks" when they swarm together, said Correll in a press release. He plans to use the swarm of robots to demonstrate pattern recognition, sensor-based motion, and adaptive shape change, as examples of swarm-intelligent and self-assembly behaviors. These Swarming robots, or droplets, developed by the University of colorado, behaviors could then be transferred to much larger Boulder, may someday assemble telescopes and satellites in space. swarms that could carry out more complex tasks in water- or air-based environments. The computer science research team also includes research Those experiments will probably be thought up by stuassociate Dustin Reishus and professional research assistant dents working in a lab Correll has set up. There, students Nick Farrow. Together, the team has designed a basic robotic can use basic, inexpensive tools to explore and develop new building block. applications for the robots. He expects that this will help acThe platform will eventually be reproduced in large quancelerate the pace of development. The lab's research focuses tities for developing increasingly complex systems. Correll on intelligent distributed systems, including sensing, actuahopes to create a design methodology that will allow the tion, computation, and communication. swarm of robots to work as an aggregate in more complex Aside from robotic swarms, researchers are working on behaviors. These might include assembling parts of an airlarge-scale, outdoor robot teams and smart materials. craft or a large space telescope. In a video that describes the team's research, Reishus says Watch the video at: [w w w. de s ig n n e w s . c o m ] april 2013 Aut o mAtio n & Co ntr o l / A s up p le me nt to de s ign news S23

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