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Engineering Research | Ants do it. Bees do it. Even bacteria on cheese do it. And robots might be made to do it, too.

Taking a page from the biology books, the engineering school’s robotics lab is studying the phenomenon of swarming to develop “armies” of small robots that could work together to perform tasks like searching unfamiliar terrain.

The U.S. Department of Defense is supporting the Swarms Project (formally known as the Scalable Swarms of Autonomous Robots and Sensors) with a $5 million grant.

“If you get a 911 call from a building, what I’d like to do is send out an army of these guys to go surround a building and tell me what’s going on,” says Dr. Vijay Kumar, director of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception Laboratory (GRASP) and principal investigator of the Swarms project. “The other thing I’d like for them to do is manipulate and transport things. Look at how ants are able to transport morsels of food much bigger than themselves. They really need [group cooperation] to make it happen.”

But how do you make large numbers of simple machines function collectively in an unknown environment?

“If I have to get two robots to work together, each has to know about the other,” Kumar explains. As the number of robots increases, he notes, the number of required interactions rises exponentially. “Obviously, it makes sense for us to look at nature, because nature solves this problem.”

As Penn engineers apply lessons based on the emergence of leaderless group behaviors among ants, fish, and even bacteria, they will be building upon a smaller-scale project in the GRASP lab that managed the movement of about a dozen robots.

Just don’t try to draw Kumar into any discussions of movies featuring robots that turn on their creators or any other science-fiction staples. “In five years we hope to have an interesting demonstration of this sort of technology,” Kumar says politely, if a bit wearily. “As with any other technology, we can always think of drawbacks, but I’d prefer not to worry about those things.”—S.F.

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