New Technology Lets You Control Swarms Of Robots With Your Fingertips
New technology now enables large groups of robots to be trained to follow a fingertip touch on a tablet. The GRITS Lab at Georgia Tech has created the system, which moves independent robots using the touch of a screen. The robots will follow wherever the finger lands and can flock around a central point, doing so automatically while making sure that there is nothing in their paths and avoiding bumping into each other.
The system uses a red beam of light and a smart tablet to allow the robot fleet to be controlled with only finger touches. A tap on the tablet’s screen makes the choice for where a beam of light appears on the floor, and the robots then swarm towards it. The rolling robots communicate with each other constantly so that they can decide how to evenly cover the area. When the light is dragged across the floor by a finger swipe, the robots follow and if two fingers are placed on different parts of the tablet screen the robots will split in half and each team flock to a finger’s position. The system is created using overhead lights that illuminate a specific area. The areas are calibrated with the tablet’s activated surface dimensions so that a spot of light on the ground corresponds with an area on the tablet’s screen.
This type of technology paves the way for new advances in using autonomous robots in unlimited settings. For example, robots could scan a disaster area, carrying out tasks and searching for signs of life. They could also be used to check inside buildings– an instructor could instruct the robots to look in a particular room or area of the building and the robots would follow the command in a group. At Georgia Tech they also envisage farmers sending robots into fields to inspect crops or manufacturing workers using robots to collect items and take them to another part of the factory or warehouse.
Magnus Egerstedt, Schlumberger Professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering has said that it is impossible for someone to control a thousand or million robots by telling each one where to go individually, but an operator can control an area that needs to be explored. The robots will then accomplish the job in the best way by working as a team.
The robots are likely to be put to good use checking inhospitable areas in the future. In time, they may also be used on the surfaces of other planets or the moon so that large areas can be covered easily and new information can be discovered before sending in a more specialised robot. On earth, there may be opportunities for this technology to control drones rather than robots, so that air surveillance or even cleaning could be easily and quickly carried out.
Last year, the largest swarm of robots ever recorded was created by Harvard University. One thousand small three legged robots were programmed to swarm together and create two dimensional shapes. These robots were also programmed by a beam of light and used infrared signals to communicate with each other, while four seed robots led the way for all the others. The algorithm and system devised by Georgia Tech is different to the Harvard robots in that they can ‘change their mind’ and perform more than one job, so they can be quickly moved to a different area or redeployed. Georgia Tech’s robots constantly measure how much light is around them and communicate with other robots to find out where they are, if there are lots of robots in one place then some will move to another lit area so that there is an equal split.
In addition, Georgia Tech’s system was created in order to be simple for everyone to use. Anyone who can touch a tablet will be able to control their own swarm of robots without having to devise complicated programs or have a background in robotics. This should make it easier for the technology to be adopted in many business areas and for many different applications as soon as the relevant robots have been built.