Robot Swarms Can Form Structures on Their Own, Like Cells in Our Bodies

Tiny robots in formation.
Each individual robot is outfitted with a short-range radio for communicating with other bots. AAAS

The future may be built on the backs of tiny robots — literally.

As in, swarms of autonomous bots that can form virtually anything out of thin air without following a master plan.

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Instead, according to new research published in the journal Science Robotics, micro-bots can communicate with one another to determine where they're needed and what form they should take.

Need a bridge of bots to traverse a disaster-stricken area? Send bots into the breach. Or an emergency shelter in a raging storm? Unleash the robo-swarm!

For the study, researchers from European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Barcelona unleashed swarms of robots with no overall mission but to seek out like-minded bots.

In this case, "like-mindedness" was defined by how much of a simulated substance called "morphogen" — essentially a made-up value — each robot was given.

Those with the highest amount of morphogen drew other lesser-endowed bots to it, ultimately creating a kind of collective mind comprising hundreds of bots.

Getting cellular vibes from these mighty morphing bots? That's because their behavior is designed to mimic human cells. Even the morphogen is intended to simulate a signaling molecule.

With each robot giving off a short-range signal — about 4 inches — they could coordinate with each other and form clusters and structures.

"We show that it is possible to apply nature's concepts of self-organisation to human technology like robots," group leader James Sharpe, explained in a press release.

"That's fascinating because technology is very brittle compared to the robustness we see in biology. If one component of a car engine breaks down, it usually results in a non-functional car. By contrast when one element in a biological system fails, for example if a cell dies unexpectedly, it does not compromise the whole system, and will usually be replaced by another cell later."

And what did these automated Lego bricks end up making of themselves? Researchers noted all kinds shapes and structures. Some of them coherent shapes. And others, well ... Every now and then a bot defied the collective to go rogue. It skittered off in its own direction, perhaps even mumbling, "I shall not be assimilated"... before it was re-assimilated.

The swarm behavior, dubbed morphogenesis, mirrors the way our own cells function, with robo-cells communicating with each other — rather than receiving instructions from the master controller, or in our case, the brain.

Sometimes, even our own cells go astray. And while we may not be at the dawn of self-organizing robo-cells just yet, researchers hope one day these swarms can be set free to spontaneously patch up an increasingly broken world.