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How Kilobots Work

        Science | Robotics

Small Bot, Big Impact

Though they're academia darlings, Kilobots show promise in the real world, too. They're drawing boards of sorts. Say some inspired researcher dreams of building a swarm of insect robots to pollinate crops. He or she would benefit from testing Kilobots first.

The petite bots also can shed light on swarm intelligence, or the collective behavior of a group, and how to better manage large gangs of robots.

Take collective transport, for example. Ants employ the behavior to carry food items (like those potato chip crumbs) back to their nest. Researchers have learned that certain individuals -- ant and robots -- play a special role in the process. Some may create a chainlike pathway that guides foragers back to the nest, while others are in charge of working together to carry the object from one place to the next. In the Kilobot arena, testing the same principle could help school robots on how to detect and clean up messes in a given environment -- like oil spills, for example.

They also might come in handy for making better maps or snapshots of environments. The robots could do this by exploring an area and creating a spatial map for reference. Other assignments could include crop pollination or leading search-and-rescue operations [source: Rutter].

Michael Rubenstein, one of the scientists who created Kilobots, says future research will focus on coming up with new algorithms that make it easier to control the swarm. Programming the robots to perform collective transport activities and finding ways to create useful shapes from the robots (like the collapsed part of a building, for example) remain priorities. Who knows, maybe Kilobots will inspire robots that resemble the science fiction favorites Transformers. The idea is to have smart, smaller robots that can connect to form a larger, more powerful one.

Still, Rubenstein says there's plenty of room for improvement. Constructing a 1,000 robot swarm has taken time. And even though Kilobots can self-correct, they lack precision when traveling at longer distances.