Have use for 10,000 robots?

What would you do with 100 or a few thousand or 10,000 small robots that operate more or less autonomously, exchange information, and decide what’s best to do next based on information passed to them by their neighbors? An 11-year I know mostly listed chores that he found mundane and didn’t want to do himself. This is the August 2008 Control Engineering "Think Again" editorial.


ONLINE extra

Photos and more information on this topic are available here.

What would you do with 100 or a few thousand or 10,000 small robots that operate more or less autonomously, exchange information, and decide what’s best to do next based on information passed to them by their neighbors?


I asked an 11-year I know. The reply was mostly things on his list of chores that he found mundane and didn’t want to do himself. The list did, however, include a massive construction project incorporating a custom skateboard park. Though the construction extended well beyond his resources or abilities, I was pleased. The mundane and massive each represent good applications for robotics.


Will an 11-year-old see the day when swarms of robots help humanity? Perhaps. James McLurkin, MIT roboticist uses 24 robots smaller than a toaster for a stage demonstration that explains three globally important things engineers should do. (Inciting engineering excitement among young people is one.) McLurkin, a graduate student at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, works with professor Leslie Kaelbling researching distributed algorithms for swarms of mobile robots. They’re using local interactions among nearby robots to produce large-scale group behaviors from the entire swarm. Other potential applications include:


  • Swarm into an earthquake zone with heat sensors and direct cockroach sized robots to scurry through rubble, analyze data on the rubble, and direct a few brontosaurus-sized rubble-removing robots to rescue survivors.

  • Invade, find, and destroy cancer cells hidden in tissue.

  • Go to Mars to explore , compare notes, and adapt the mission as needed based on information gathered and shared.


The stage demonstration simulated how a robotic swarm getting off a space ship might handle challenges with a dispersion algorithm, transfer leadership, form groups according to need, secure a perimeter, and return to “home.”


“I don’t know what this one thinks he’s doing ,” McLurkin laughed as he gathered a wandering robot. Later, as the robots tried to line up, a clump formed as they moved and bumped each other. “They don’t have knot-rectifier software,” McLurkin smiled, moving a few of the robots outside the group. With the extra space, the robots lined up just fine.




ONLINE extra on robotics


Join the discussion. Read and see photos from Swarm robotics: Debugged naturally for 120 million years .” What would you do with swarm robotics? What are the three things engineers should be doing? Also link to




Read a blog about automated vehicles .


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