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A Thousand of These 'Droplet' Robots Will Test Swarm Algorithms

A university crowdfunding campaign wants to create a "liquid that thinks" with a horde of swarming robots.

Screenshot of some Droplet swarming robots 

Many of Earth's creatures move in swarms. Fish, ants, birds, slime mold, and even humans in the throes of mob mentality exhibit swarm behavior. Now, University of Colorado-Boulder researchers aim to test swarming algorithms on a large scale by bringing small, mobile robots called Droplets into a new college course. They also hope to bring it into K-12 science classes, and make the technology available to artists for creative projects.

To fund the effort, researchers just launched a crowdfunding campaign. In a video released for the crowdfunding effort, researchers state that they want to scale up and mass produce 1,000 Droplet robots.

The Droplet, according to UC-Boulder's Nikolaus Correll, Anshul Kanakia, and John Klingner, is based on ten years of swarm robotics research. The robots can move omni-directionally, are powered from the floor, and can take various measurements in relation to neighboring robots, which allows them to swarm and participate in self-assembly experiments. 

"Swarming is ubiquitous in nature," reads the crowdfunding page. "[I]f you think about it, everything is a swarm. Atoms as old as the universe interact with each other following the most basic laws of physics to form molecules, cells, brains and people." 

Apart from learning about self-assembly, researchers hope Droplets will teach them something about distributed learning (interactive and distance-oriented, amongst other things), cell-differentiation, and "the emergence of life-like behavior at an unprecedented scale." Students will be given their own small swarm to experiment on, with the more ambitious goal of creating a large-scale project with the entire Droplet swarm at the end of the semester.

Researchers are already working with a few artists on the Droplet project. Michael Theodore, a new media artist who uses software to create artwork based on observations of the natural world, is one such artist. Marina Zurkow and cyborg performance artist Stelarc also plan to use the swarming robots in their work. The goal with the Droplet art installations is to see how "matter can become alive" and push the boundaries of how "bodies, nature and technology interact."

This research could eventually tell us something about Emergence, the theory that attempts to explain decentralized, seemingly spontaneous swarm behavior. The flocking behavior of starlings, shown so notably in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, is one example of this activity. And, hell, maybe researchers could use these guys to understand some of our own swarm behavior. Now that would really be interesting.