Swarming Robots Can Now Follow Your Fingertips


Controlling large swarms of robots is hard, at least on a human scale. But what if you trained them to follow your finger – via a tablet – much like you’d train a swarm of cats to follow a laser pointer. Now you’re cooking with gas.

Georgia Tech’s GRITS Lab has created a system for moving multiple independent robots around just by touching a screen. Wherever your finger lands that’s where the robots go. Not unlike Lily, the selfie drone, these robots flock around a central point automatically, missing each other as they move around and ensuring their paths are unencumbered. Quoth the team:

Using a smart tablet and a red beam of light, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have created a system that allows people to control a fleet of robots with the swipe of a finger. A person taps the tablet to control where the beam of light appears on a floor. The swarm robots then roll toward the illumination, constantly communicating with each other and deciding how to evenly cover the lit area. When the person swipes the tablet to drag the light across the floor, the robots follow. If the operator puts two fingers in different locations on the tablet, the machines will split into teams and repeat the process.

While these sorts of tricks don’t seem important, imagine a group of little robots following instructions autonomously around a disaster area or inside a building. An operator could ask the robots to check out a general location – a far corner, for example – and the robots would wend their way there like merry little mice.

“It’s not possible for a person to control a thousand or a million robots by individually programming each one where to go,” said Magnus Egerstedt, Schlumberger Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in a release. “Instead, the operator controls an area that needs to be explored. Then the robots work together to determine the best ways to accomplish the job.”

There isn’t much in the way of commercialization of these robots right now but expect some sort of usable version of this flocking technique to appear down the line as we start using drones to carry packages and ground robots to scout inhospitable areas. I, for one, welcome our flocking robotic overlords.

via Spectrum