How Kilobots Work

Crafting a Swarm

Commanding one robot to action may be a cinch, but getting an entire group to operate with the same precision isn't as easy -- or cheap.

One of the biggest draws of Kilobots is their simple design and low price. Michael Rubenstein, who helped develop the robots with other researchers at Harvard University, says keeping costs and assembly time down was a priority.

Each component has a basic use, whether it's moving around or signaling to its mechanical buddies close by. Kilobots are unique in that they stay in "sleep mode" until summoned by the overhead controller. A person can turn an entire swarm of Kilobots "on" by sending out one signal -- as opposed to manually switching "on" every robot.

If a 1.3-inch (33-millimeter) Kilobot is what your heart desires, here's a basic list of what you'll need to bring one to life [sources: Rubenstein et al., K-Team Corp.]:

  • A round, printed circuit board (PCB) that serves as the base of the robot
  • A rechargeable lithium ion battery, with a life between three and 10 hours
  • Two vibrating motors that shift the robot in circles and in a straight line (the same principle that makes a cell phone move across a table when it vibrates)
  • Three rigid legs for support that lift the robot about four-fifths of an inch (2 centimeters) above a given surface
  • A multidirectional infrared light transmitter and receiver, located on the bottom of the robot
  • An LED light, capable of signaling red, green and blue
  • An overhead controller to broadcast messages via infrared signals within about a 3-foot (1-meter) diameter below the unit
  • A control station -- a computer to enter commands
  • A charging station
  • A mostly flat area ideal for reflecting infrared light (usually a white surface)

Done with that DIY? Let's dive into what Kilobots can actually do.