Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Robot Swarm On The Horizon

Cool Tech Alert: Introducing the robot swarm. Have you ever watched a large flock of birds turning and swooping in tandem and wondered how that whole thing works? I think their ability to do that has got something to do with the Earth's magnetic field, or something equally scientific, but when I watch a whole group of birds moving as one, there's a part of me that starts believing in bird telepathy. Somehow they're talking; I just don't understand how. Little internal biological radios maybe? "Ready? Time to baffle the humans. Turn right 17 degrees, and down 5 degrees, on my mark. Three, two, one, mark." Then they all giggle and squeal hysterically in little birds cheeps. "Hmmph. Humans think they're so smart. Let them try that."

Well, it looks like humans are trying that, with mechanical proxies. Whatever method the birds use, the effect is obvious, and scientists are studying the flock of birds phenomenon and applying what they're learning to groups of flying robots. There is work on multiple fronts to get flying thechno-gadgets to share information and fly as highly complex units. David Hambling, at has a look at the current manifestations of the technology, complete with loads of links to projects that are in the works, as well as links to explanations of the more rudimentary definitions and scientific principles at work in the research. (I spent some time on these. Rudimentary is good.)

Hambling comments on the varied potential civilian uses uses for swarming technology, including firefighting and space exploration, but says that many of the most immediate applications will be military:

Swarms are extremely robust, have a high level of built-in redundancy and are well suited to complex and rapidly-changing environments. Swarming robots are a natural for the battlefield. Because the individual elements can be made small and cheap, swarms can consist of a very large number of units – and the success of this approach in nature hints at how effective it is.
That does sound extremely promising on the military front, doesn't it? Hambling spends most of the rest of the article looking at military applications. I'd love to focus more on the civilian applications, like how a swarm of robots could someday fly around and dust my house while I blog, but I did get this info from a site that specializes in "the future of the military, law enforcement, and national security," so I'm not too surprised that Hambling spends more time on security-related applications than on discussing ways that I might get out of housework. He's pretty enthusiastic about the potential of the technology though. He indicates that the advances are coming thick and fast, and that they will change things substantially, and not just militarily. Maybe someday when we see a swarm of something in the distance, turning and swooping in a complicated sky-dance, we'll have to look twice to see whether it's a flock of birds, or a flock of flying robots, mapping out terrain for a new drainage system, or looking for hot spots in the embers of an apartment fire. The applications are probably limitless. We just need to let our imaginations soar a bit.