Harvard’s created a miniature robot army (but don’t panic)

Computer scientists at Harvard University have assembled an army of robots that can act independently and work together. But we probably don’t need to worry about them invading us (yet) because each one is only around the size of a coin.

There are 1024 of them, they’re powered by two small, vibrating motors apiece, and they’re called Kilobots (because they’re so small, not because there’s something sinister about their potential. Probably).

When one of the researchers sends a signal to the robots to take on a particular shape, they move into the correct formation (like the star above), even correcting any errors and adapting to unexpected obstacles without a problem. (Seeing is believing, so there’s a video of the Kilobots in action.)

The university says that this is similar to the way ants collaborate, or cells adapt as a group. It signifies a big step forward in terms of developing artificial intelligence (which they apparently consider a good thing, despite Haley Joel Osment’s fine work).

Few robot teams have ever exceeded 100 because it’s so complicated to write an algorithm that can control a large number of devices. But engineering professor Radhika Nagpal and her team got around this by designing a system where four robots act as coordinates.

All of the others receive an instruction to recreate a 2D image and by being aware of each other’s locations, they’re able to shuffle into the right shape.

The researchers say this new system will allow them to better understand the challenges of working with larger robots, testing solutions on their tiny counterparts. Plus, it’s pretty cute, even if one day they’ll probably run us clean off the planet.

Diane Shipley