In these bot hookups, the machines meld their minds

New composite robots take coordination to a new level

MIND MELDERS  These Roomba-like robots latch onto each other with metal clasps and merge their “nervous systems” to become bigger, centrally controlled bots of various shapes and sizes.

M. Dorigo and Nithin Mathews

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Meet the first fleet of hive-minded robots.

These robots can latch onto one another and link up their individual “nervous systems” — the network of connections between their computer processors, cameras, wheels and other gadgetry — to create a single-minded machine. The composite robots, reported online September 12 in Nature Communications, pave the way for a new generation of machines that can change their shape on the fly.

In previous robots made up of many smaller machines, each robotic building block maintained control over its own nervous system. It was “a little bit like if we had a bunch of people joining together to do something,” explains study coauthor Marco Dorigo, an engineer at Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. “They were trying to coordinate by exchanging messages with neighbors without anyone being in charge.” These multi-bodied robots could link up to create different shapes, unlike solo devices. But the lack of centralized control meant the robot collectives were clumsier and had slower reaction times than stand-alone bots.

The collective robot bodies created by Dorigo and colleagues, however, are helmed by a single member of the group, which the researchers dubbed the “brain unit.” That robot collects sensory data from all the others and controls their operations via Wi-Fi. This centralized decision making “makes sensory-motor control much more efficient,” Dorigo says, regardless of the robot configuration’s size or shape.

Dorigo’s team built 13 robots, which could self-assemble into several arrangements, such as plierlike and salamander-esque shapes. Future robots with this ability to continually reconfigure themselves may be better at navigating different types of terrain, fitting through small openings and performing a wider range of tasks than solo robots with fixed body shapes.

AUTOMATONS, ASSEMBLE Thirteen robots start out as individual machines, each acting as their own “brain unit” (as indicated by their red glow). Then, the robots glom onto each other to form snail-shaped, arrow-shaped, salamander-shaped and finally plier-shaped composite bots. In each of these bot conglomerates, one of the component robots acts as the brains of the operation (identifiable by its red LEDs). M. Dorigo et al/Nature Communications 2017

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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