Housefly-sized tetherless robots created; powered by solar energy.

01 September 2009

It’s only in the past quarter-century or so that semiautonomous sensor platforms – self-powered robots equipped with cameras, rangefinders, and the like – have really advanced to the point where they’re feasible for field work. Right off the bat, everyone thinks of the UAVs deployed in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere or sophisticated robotics projects developed by hackers, but why stop there? When you consider practical sensor platforms most of them aren’t subtle: they’re the size of a model airplane or larger, and depending upon the method of propulsion used you might even hear them before you see them. But why not think on a much smaller scale?

Not too long ago, roboticists from Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland developed miniature robots about 4 millimeters on a side which are powered by a solar cell and sport an Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (think of it as a dedicated-purpose processor) for a CPU attached to a teeny-tiny flexible circuit board with conductive glue. Each minibot has four tiny vibrating feet – three are used for locomotion while the fourth serves as a touch sensor. It is said that short-range infrared transceivers could be incorporated into each minibot for communication with others of its kind so that they could operate in unison using behaviors patterned after insect swarms.

In fact, there is already a project framework called I-Swarm which implement algorithms of this sort.

It is hoped that swarmbots will one day be cheap enough to deploy en masse for certain applications, such as environmental monitoring, diagnostics of large systems (like power generation plants), and possibly even surveillance.