How Kilobots Work

Meet the Kilobot. Clockwise from the top left corner, you're looking at the top, bottom, side and front views, respectively. You can also see the different parts of a Kilobot: A) vibration motors, B) lithium ion battery, C) supporting legs, D) infrared transmitter/receiver and E) LED. See more robot pictures.
Image courtesy Michael Rubenstein, Nicholas Hoff and Radhika Nagpal

After hosting a supremely fun backyard cookout with friends, you start the less-fun cleanup process. Despite your determination, you'll probably leave a few crumbs behind -- and the remnants of your backyard cookout will likely draw one of nature's finest teams.

It starts with a swarm of hungry ants advancing toward the pile of crushed potato chips on the cement. Piece by piece, the ants collect the crumbs to carry back to the nest. The tiny insects are working together, helping lift morsels several times their size. Acting collectively, they achieve what one individual can't do single-handedly.

What if we could design robots like these ants, able to work both independently and as a larger whole? For the most part, creating small armies of robots has been expensive and time-consuming, leading scientists to stick with computer simulations over the real thing.

Enter Kilobots. Researchers at Harvard University created the little bots in hopes of creating an easy and cheap way to test algorithms -- or programmed steps to solve problems -- across a group of many robots. As of March 2012, the group had created small swarms of Kilobots, with a greater goal of building a "kilobit" of Kilobots: a collective of 1,024 individuals (and where the project gets its name) [source: Rubenstein].

These simple machines may help test and develop complex behaviors in other types of robots. Kilobot supporters say the system could fine-tune robots that find and rescue people from collapsed buildings or possibly aid in cleaning up sticky oil globs from polluted environments.

Think of Kilobots as a test fleet: They won't necessarily possess the qualities -- like wheels -- that other machines will have. Rather, they're the playground where scientists can experiment and sort out any problems with their programming before sinking their research dollars into larger, more complex robots.

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