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Simple Robots, Smart Algorithms: Meet the BOBbots
Anyone with children knows that while controlling one child can be hard, controlling many at once can be nearly impossible. Getting swarms of robots to work collectively can be equally challenging, unless researchers carefully choreograph their interactions -- like planes in formation -- using increasingly sophisticated components and algorithms. But what can be reliably accomplished when the robots on hand are simple, inconsistent, and lack sophisticated programming for coordinated behavior?
A team of researchers led by Dana Randall, ADVANCE Professor of Computing and Daniel Goldman, Dunn Family Professor of Physics, both at Georgia Institute of Technology, sought to show that even the simplest of robots can still accomplish tasks well beyond the capabilities of one, or even a few, of them. The goal of accomplishing these tasks with what the team dubbed "dumb robots" (essentially mobile granular particles) exceeded their expectations, and the researchers report being able to remove all sensors, communication, memory and computation -- and instead accomplishing a set of tasks through leveraging the robots' physical characteristics, a trait that the team terms "task embodiment."
The team's BOBbots, or "behaving, organizing, buzzing bots" that were named for granular physics pioneer Bob Behringer, are "about as dumb as they get," explains Randall. "Their cylindrical chassis have vibrating brushes underneath and loose magnets on their periphery, causing them to spend more time at locations with more neighbors." The experimental platform was supplemented by precise computer simulations led by Georgia Tech physics student Shengkai Li, as a way to study aspects of the system inconvenient to study in the lab.