June 5 - British researchers have created a swarm of self-organising robots which can carry out simple fetching and carrying tasks. They say their work sets the stage for the development of autonomous teams of robots to help in disaster rescue efforts and even medical surgery. Jim Drury reports.
E-puck robots programmed to organise themselves into a swarm. Sheffield Centre for Robotics researchers programmed the 40-robot team via Bluetooth. Each robot contains an internal on-board computer, making it fully autonomous. Project leader Dr Roderich Gross says their work could help create smaller 'nanobots' to undertake non-invasive microsurgery. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR RODERICH GROSS, HEAD OF THE NATURAL ROBOTICS LAB, SAYING: "They essentially do not need much computational resources, they do not need much memory....this then leads to a whole new area of applications, for example biomedical applications. You could swallow these robots and they could maybe repair tissue, they may bring drugs from one location to another where this is to be released, or perhaps they do even surgery." The robots can group themselves together into a cluster or organise themselves by order of priority. Gross says robots could, before long, play a part in search and rescue operations. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR RODERICH GROSS, HEAD OF THE NATURAL ROBOTICS LAB, SAYING: "These are prototypes for research and education to study how to control large swarms of robots but in the future you will find these robots in the field, they will be sent out into disaster zones, to search for human beings, perhaps equipped with temperature sensors, also chemical sensors, and once they find them they can relay that information back to a human operator, and then we can send in a rescue team." Researchers at Swiss institute EPFL, led by Professor Francesco Mondada, created the e-puck and these Swarm-bots, which have demonstrated an elementary rescue capability on flat ground. But if a stricken child like this is to be rescued in real life, the next generation of robots will need to become all terrain vehicles. Gross says the e-pucks could be programmed as a team of in-house carers for the elderly or disabled, undertaking cleaning and tidying functions. With self-charging robots becoming more ubiquitous, Gross says it won't be long before swarm robotics plays a major role in our day-to-day lives.