Technology

And the Many Shall Be One: Robots Merge to Become Smart

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffJun 22, 2010 9:54 AM

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Voltron, Dinobots, Insecticons, Constructicons: What did they all have in common? OK, yes, they were all toys made by Mattel*, but what *else* do they have in common? They all took disparate parts to form a greater, unified hold, kind of a sci-fi e pluribus unum. Which is exactly what the students and scientists at the Institute for Dynamics and Systems Control in Switzerland pulled off at the end of the semester last year, when they created the Distributed Flight Array. The devices they engineered look like hexagons made of white plastic, each with a propeller in the center. Alone, each device is autonomous, but pretty dumb, mostly just wandering around the floor and occasionally lifting into unstable flight. But as each device bumps into another, they dock. When they reach a critical number, the collective becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. What's clever here is not creating a flying device, but using multiple small intelligences to combine into one larger intelligence. From the DFA website:

Joined together, however, these relatively simple modules evolve into a sophisticated multi-propeller system capable of coordinated flight. The task of keeping the array in level flight is distributed across the network of vehicles. Vehicles exchange information and combine this information with their own sensor measurements to determine how much thrust is needed for the array to take-off and maintain level flight.

The devices have no immediate practical purpose. Raymong Oung, a staffer at the institute, said in the YouTube comments that the device is "a research and teaching tool for distributed estimation and control." Still, it's not hard to imagine finding practical uses for a device that can roam around an area gathering information, join together with similiar devices, and then fly off to somewhere else. * By the way, Mattel just re-acquired the Voltron license, and there are new Voltron cartoons coming on Nickelodeon. Gen X, start your engines!

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