Researchers Create Robotic Particle Swarm That Acts Like Human Cells


A team of researchers at the Columbia Engineering and MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) has created a particle robotic-swarm that has individual components that perform as a whole. This kind of robot has never been seen before.

Hod Lipson, Professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia Engineering, said, ‘You can think of our new robot as the proverbial “Gray Goo.” Our robot has no single point of failure and no centralized control. It’s still fairly primitive, but now we know that this fundamental robot paradigm is actually possible. We think it may even explain how groups of cells can move together, even though individual cells cannot.’

Scientists have been developing autonomous robots for years now but they primarily comprised of non-biological devices unable to heal or grow. However, the Columbia Engineering/MIT’s latest scalable robots come with the amazing ability to carry on their function even when the individual parts fail to do so.

Lipson, who directs the Creative Machines Lab, said, ‘We’ve been trying to fundamentally rethink our approach to robotics, to discover if there is a way to make robots differently. Not just make a robot look like a biological creature but actually construct it like a biological system, to create something that is vast in complexity and abilities yet composed of fundamentally simple parts.’

The researchers developed the swarm by making use of identical particles. The key components, individual in nature, can perform a simple motion such as expansion and contraction. However, when they are combined together; they transform into a whole entity, which can carry on functioning even if some parts of it are damaged.

CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, said, ‘All creatures in nature are made of cells that combine in different ways to make organisms. In developing particle robots, the question we ask is, can we have robotic cells that can be composed in different ways to make different robots? The robot could have the best shape required by the task — a snake to crawl through a tunnel or three-handed machine for a factory floor. We could even give these particle robots the ability to make themselves. Suppose, for example, that a robot needs a screwdriver from the table — the screwdriver is too far to reach. What if the robot could reshuffle its cells to grow an extra-long arm? As its goals change, its body can change too.’

The team modeled the movements of their robotic swarm in simulations. It made use of hundreds and thousands of particles, testing them for object transport and obstacle avoidance. The team learned that the swarm was able to counter both noisy interference and the failure of individual components.

Richa Batra, the co-first author of the paper and Lipson’s Ph.D. student that was leading the simulation studies, said, ‘We found that our particle robots maintained approximately half of their fully functioning speed even when 20 percent of the particles are dead.’

The amazing study has been published in Nature.