These Tiny, Mindless Robots Are More Than the Sum of Their Parts

These robots can only do one thing: move forward. That doesn't stop them from achieving much more together.

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A. Deblais et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. (2018)

Plenty of insects exhibit some sort of hive mind behavior, where complicated behaviors can come from a group of individuals following only a few simple rules. For instance, each individual worker ant might only be able to perform a few tasks like following pheromone trails and picking up food, but the result is a colony that is capable of building extensive nests and intelligently responding to outside threats.

A group of researchers at the University of Bordeaux in France have of this type of hive mind behavior, by building tiny, mindless robots that only know how to go forward, but can still work as a group to maneuver around obstacles.

The robots in question are little more than tiny vibrating bits of plastic, with no programming or intelligence to speak of. Each robot measures only about an inch long, and can move forward about a foot per second. That’s all that these robots are capable of by themselves, but when the researchers put dozens of them together something interesting happened.

The researchers placed several of these robots inside a movable ring, and while the robots can’t escape the ring they can move it around. The expectation was that the ring might move a little thanks to random movements from the robots, but what they found was that the robots would coordinate to move the ring in a specific direction.

This means the researchers have found a way to create insect-like emergent behaviors in robots, which could prove valuable when studying these types of behaviors in real insects. In addition, getting a better handle on how to make these types of behaviors happen could have important applications in building other types of robots, such as nanobots operating in our own bodies.

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