There’s no ‘I’ in team. Unless you’re operating with a swarm intelligence.
A vast majority of robots that have entered the public eye are single, autonomous units able to execute tasks under their own power, separate from human intervention or assistance. However, this doesn’t mean that having a single robot is an efficient — or even possible — approach to a given task.
Much in the same way a colony of bees can pollinate an entire acre of crops, multiple automatons working together to reach a common goal can exponentially increase their effectiveness and unlock possibilities that had been mere daydreams to people wondering about the basics of robotics.
What are swarm robots
The industrial revolution has ushered in a sweeping rationalization of society, causing broader processes of social labor to be atomized into their component functions. Instead of artisans perfecting a craft, we now have factory workers executing rote tasks in conjunction with a larger, externalized plan.
This dramatic change to the division of labor in society has lent itself well to the adoption of robots and automation in industrial production, further progressing the calculable division of human work.
What are swarm robots used for?
Currently, swarm robots are being used for military operations as well as for exploration. Recent developments in the field suggest that they could soon be found in industries such as agriculture or mining.
In many ways, swarm robotics is just the next step in this process; it enables tasks to be broken down to such a degree that they are too small for an individual human to effectively accomplish. In so doing, they can achieve a final goal that is beyond the scope of anything we have been able to accomplish through artificial means.
How do swarm robots work? A natural inspiration
Typically, swarm robots are much smaller than typical autonomous robots (though not nearly as small as a nanobot). Swarm robots work by having anywhere from a few dozen to upwards of a thousand robots that act in perfect harmony in order to accomplish a task. This is done through what is known as “swarm intelligence,” a method of organization for a system that is comprised of many individuals but controlled by none of them and that allows for a high degree of flexibility.
This is based off of naturally occurring biological principles that can be found in schools of fish, flocks of birds, and even herds of some larger mammals. In essence, swarm robots seek to emulate the ability of these animals to exhibit a collective behavior in the face of external stimulus and in order to accomplish a task.
A robotic swarm functions along these lines by possessing a high level of redundancy between machines, that is, the failure of one or even several of robots will not noticeably impact the overall functionality of the swarm. Because of this, swarm robots are able to be broadly applied to a wide variety of environments and dynamically allocate themselves in order to accomplish a task no matter the obstacles thrown in their way.
Interest in learning about the developments and technology that has allowed for such interesting advancements? Check out our overview of the History of Robotics for everything you need to know!
Applications of swarm robotics
Swarm robotics will hopefully allow us to solve some of the most complex problems plaguing us today. Their ability to scale and adapt to any environment means they can apply human ingenuity to nearly any situation.
For example, it has been extensively researched as a prospective way to bolster failing ecosystems in the face of climate change and other natural catastrophes. Swarm robotics could potentially be scaled to create artificial bees and insects that could pollinate crops and other key plants to ensure their survival and prevent a disastrous famine.
It has also been theorized that the principles of swarm robotics could be used to almost entirely replace conventional armies. We’ve already seen robotics being heavily used in various air-forces around the world in the form of autonomous drones, and the US navy has experimented with robotic navies that are capable of reacting to threats in real time.
Luckily, there are other, far more peaceable, purposes that this technology can be turned towards. Swarm robots could also serve for the basis of a resilient exploration expedition or be used to coordinate a system of ground or aerial vehicles, perhaps opening an avenue for self-driving cars in our lifetime.
Eye of the swarm
With such power able to be harnessed by scientists through swarm robotics, the future seems exciting indeed. Who knows what form this still inchoate subfield will take in the coming decades as the technology continues to be improved and refined. Until then, it pays to understand the social conditions that allowed for swarm robotics to come to be and what principles are actively shaping their development.
Is there a way to ensure an ethical society emerges out of these breathtaking technological advances? Check out our analysis of Issac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics for thoughts on that conundrum.