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Robot Swarm Shifts Heavy Objects 142

Posted by Zonk
from the robo-movers-sound-great dept.
holy_calamity writes "A swarm of robots has been demonstrated that can get together to transport an object too heavy for a single bot. Each robot is loaded with the same simple set of behaviors but more complex intelligence emerges from a group interacting. Two videos show the robots in action, and using a more complex behavior necessary when they're set to short sighted mode and can't see the target location from the starting point."
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Robot Swarm Shifts Heavy Objects

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  • by LiquidCoooled (634315) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @02:43PM (#16489927) Homepage Journal
    The robots can adjust their caterpillar tracks, to ensure they are all pulling in the right direction. "Each robot has a traction sensor inside that detects all the external forces on it," explains Dorigo. A robot uses its sensor to identify any conflicting forces, and then changes direction accordingly.

    So, once its carrying your cargo along the path and begins to slide down a slope all the tracks will turn in unison to help carry it down the hill to its doom. They won't think anything is wrong because everyone will be pulling in the same direction.

    Apart from this minor detail i think w00t!
    • Well, clearly you need to add more "manager" robots to direct the worker bots.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by MankyD (567984)

        So, once its carrying your cargo along the path and begins to slide down a slope all the tracks will turn in unison to help carry it down the hill to its doom. They won't think anything is wrong because everyone will be pulling in the same direction.

        I'm assuming maybe this was more of a humorous comment, but I'll take the bait. It would be trivial (I would think) to add a pitch sensor of some sort, then do a little bit of simply physics/trig to adjust the force calculations.

        • Unfortunately that wouldn't work either.
          Uneven ground would make their sensors go wrong.

          GP Darth had the best solution, and I never thought I would bring myself to say this but,
          there aren't enough managers.
          • by PitaBred (632671)
            There's no ego, so managers aren't needed. If more than a certain percentage (70%?) of them are headed downhill, that's probably a bad thing, and they should probably stop.
    • by SigILL (6475) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @03:24PM (#16490589) Homepage
      So, once its carrying your cargo along the path and begins to slide down a slope all the tracks will turn in unison to help carry it down the hill to its doom. They won't think anything is wrong because everyone will be pulling in the same direction.

      Yeah, totally unlike humans!

      Er, wait...
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by DittoBox (978894)
      hmmmmm might need modification

      The title certainly does. When I first read the header/title, I thought it said "Robot Swarm Shits Heavy Objects."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @02:44PM (#16489945)
    A 5 oz bird cannot carry a 1 lb cocoanut.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I for one welcome our new army of robot-swarm overlords.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Welcoming them is the only choice we have. After all, the only protection we have against robot attacks, the tips in How to Survive a Robot Uprising [amazon.com] , only work against single robots. If they are able to effectively band together against a target, we're doomed. At least insurance is available [robotmarketplace.com] for letting your family pull through after the metal ones come for you.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by homebrewmike (709361)
      Oh yeah?

      Imagine a Beowulf cluster of these!

      Hey - it had to be said.
  • A swarm of /. surfers "shifted" that in-story video link (and I'm assuming its server) into oblivion!
  • Because robots are strong. And they're made of metal.
    • ...and they eat old people's medicine for fuel
  • i have a gut feeling this story has been written in a way that takes simple developments out of context. The day i worry about robots getting too smart is when the saying about monkeys in front of typewriters writing epics at a ratio of 1000 monkeys for a year = 1 literary epic (or something like that) is reduced to one robot w/ the ability to compose one literary epic in one minute. Then we have something to talk/worry about..............
    • by krell (896769)
      OT, but is part of your SIG missing? Or is the incompleteness part of the joke?
      • by dschuetz (10924)
        I think the line is "It's God's responsibility to punish the terrorists. It's our responsibility to arrange the meeting." Or something like that.

        (google gets a lot of variants of this)
  • Why does it look like this video was taken through a hole in a box? It's just sort of weird...
  • by krell (896769) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @02:47PM (#16490031) Journal
    But can they impersonate a T-Rex and mystify John Locke?
    • by Jim Hall (2985)

      Dude, that one was debunked by the writers. Like, ages ago. :-)

      (Great to see a 'Lost' reference here..)

    • Only if they can get the Utahraptor and D-something or other from the Dinosaur Comics.
    • by zobier (585066)
      But can they impersonate a T-Rex and mystify John Locke?
      That would be quite the feat considering he's been dead for 302 years.
  • Oh great... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Borg v0.1
  • a HA! (Score:2, Funny)

    by justinbach (1002761)
    So THAT'S how they built the pyramids!
  • The Invincible [wikipedia.org] by Lem describes a planet populated by a swarm of self-replicating robots, that are very small and simple individually, but as a group display extremely complex behaviours, have swarm memory.

    So all we need to do is to show these robots how to self-replicate, I am sure most people on /. know enough about this practice that they should be able to explain this to a robot. And then we are all set. (did I mention that the swarm of these robots killed off everything else on the planet? But it wil
    • by nEJC76 (904161)
      Why a book when TV show [wikipedia.org] will do?
      Some of us are too lazy to read... ;)
    • So all we need to do is to show these robots how to self-replicate, I am sure most people on /. know enough about this practice that they should be able to explain this to a robot.

      Spanking the monkey in front of the computer will not enable robots to self-replicate.
  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @02:50PM (#16490089) Homepage
    The object was apparently to demonstrate something or other regarding cooperation strategies between robots with limited communication abilities and limited knowledge of the surroundings.

    What, precisely, was gained by doing this with actual physical robots, rather than a computer simulation?
    • What is gained by building the building once you have the architectural drawings?
    • Perhaps the people have a grandmother....

      PAK CHOOIE
    • by Vellmont (569020) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @02:59PM (#16490221)

      What, precisely, was gained by doing this with actual physical robots, rather than a computer simulation?

      Gee, maybe things like accounting for things you never thought or had the ability to simulate? What makes you think that a computer can model every single thing (frictional forces, heat and stress on motors, etc) as well as actual reality?
      • by dpbsmith (263124) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @03:15PM (#16490453) Homepage
        No, but surely it can model the _cooperative_ aspects.

        I wouldn't trust a computer to predict whether a robot hand is capable of cracking an egg and peeling off the shell without damaging the membrane underneath.

        But I would trust a computer to model the effect of having robot A shine a blue light, robot B shine a red light, have robot A programmed to move toward a red light at 1 mph, and have robot B programmed to move away from a blue light at 2 mph. And I would trust it to model the effect of a twenty such robots.
        • by jotok (728554) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @03:57PM (#16491119)
          Interaction effects result in "emergent" behavior because it's not readily apparent from the behavior of individuals. That is to say, sense-and-respond cycles are not easy to model unless you start out with a lot of data. A good example is ants--single ants wandering around demonstrate chaotic behavior in time and in space, whereas large numbers of ants demonstrate very ordered behavior (purposeful movement, all taking rests at the same time, etc.). We can model this because we've seen it, but before we ever saw it, it would probably have been outside of our abilities to predict that it would happen.

          In terms of complexity hierarchy, it doesn't make sense to make a model that is just an aggregation of different objects. You don't talk about the group behavior entirely in terms of the objects making up the group, because the objects don't demonstrate group behavior--the group does--so in some sense "half a herd of robots" doesn't make any sense. From the perspective from which the group behavior is evident, the group is a unitary individual.

          Clear as mud?
        • by Vellmont (569020)
          But we're not talking about just shining lights here, we're talking about moving an object. That involves modeling the frictional forces, possibly balance, etc. Modeling parts of the co-operative aspects before hand would probbably help in the programming design of the robots, but if you want to know if it's actually going to work (how quickly does each robot need to respond to change X, etc), it's probbably easier to just build the damn things.
        • Presumably they did do this in simulation, but wanted to see whether it would work, that their simulation was correct. When making a simulation, you necessarily make simplifications. Perhaps the robots can't sense light quite as well (or better) than your simulation. Perhaps they can't produce as much force, or get in the way of each other. Perhaps chaotic influences from the environment can affect what they do.
      • by Bozdune (68800)
        It wasn't a simulation because you then couldn't make a neat demonstration and show it in real time to the numb-nuts military dweeb in charge of your DoD grant.

        Or, if you work for the Media Lab, you couldn't have made a cute little video for the Discovery Channel to drool over.

        It's all about the marketing, not the science. OF COURSE it would have made more sense to have simulated the behavior. And it could have been done at a fraction of the cost.
    • by arcmay (253138)

      People have been doing this in simulation for a while...thumb through the proceedings of pretty much any conference that touches on swarm robotics (or just play Pikmin). At some point you actually need to build the damn thing to convince people it will work in practice. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, etc.
    • by kfg (145172)
      What, precisely, was gained by doing this with actual physical robots, rather than a computer simulation?

      Knowledge.

      When I'm going where I've already been a computer model will suffice. When I'm going where I've never gone before only a physical model will do.

      The inherent weakness of the computer model is that, even when using it to make predictions, it will only tell you what you already know and it will do so unerringly, even if what you know is . . .well, wrong.

      KFG
    • by leoxx (992)
      Because they can.
    • They are just too annoying to program that it's probably easier to build a robot especially when dealing with unideal situations. An ultrasonic sensor can have so many different modes of failure (ie Specular reflection. Sheets. Cross Talk. Etc. Etc. Etc.) that it's better just to use an actual robot.
    • by bidule (173941)

      In theory, you're right: there's no difference. But in practice...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by SpeedBump0619 (324581)
      What, precisely, was gained by doing this with actual physical robots, rather than a computer simulation?

      "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is." -- Computer Scientist Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut (or Yogi Berra, depending on who you believe)
    • I advise you read "I, Robot" (not watch the movie, READ THE BOOK) to realize some of the things that a computer simulation may not catch.
    • between robots with limited communication abilities and limited knowledge of the surroundings.

      You answered your own question right there. It can be extremely difficult to simulate the 'unknowns' present in a real environment. So yes, you can simulate comms degredation and limited sensor range, but what about "unknown unknowns"? Things that fall into that category might be if your comms are short range modulated IR, what is the effect of reflections? Or if it is RF, similarly, what about environmental inte
    • Why do you assume they didn't do a computer simulation?

      I don't know about that group in particular, but they most likely developed on a simulator, then implemented it real robots once they had a potential algorithm. These robots are also not very likely to be single purpose, They will most likely be used many times by other projects who were developing potential software with their simulators. Also, whoever got to build the robots got to learn about building robots and mechanical systems in general, likely
  • Does anyone else remember those "programmable matter" blocks someone was pushing on a website several years back? They were white blocks about a cubic foot in diamater, that supposdely could be linked together to do anything you wanted to. Sort of nanotechnology on a macro scale. Supposedly their first profitable application was going to be in bridge building.

    Anyway, these sound similar, except for the fact that there was always something a little fishy about that "programmable matter" site...

    Crow T. T

  • Imagine a beowulf cluster of those things. Oh wait...
  • by TheMadTech (1015223) <themadtech@gmail.com> on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @02:53PM (#16490145) Homepage
    All these Japanese companies are dead set on the whole humanoid robot concept. While the AI systems are clearly a joke, why focus so much energy on bipedal movement? It is clearly not the easiest mode of transportation. Human walking is essentially controlled falling. Oh great a bunch of things that kind of resemble humans can lift something heavy all together. Why not just build a smart forklift to do the same job autonomously. It just doesn't make any sense.
    • by kfg (145172)
      While they may not be masters of the art (because as yet nobody is) the Japanese are, nonetheless, the current masters of the nonhumaoid, form follows industrial function robot worker and they sell them all over the world. They're a bit of old hat. Nobody's going to grab a USA Today headline with "Robot that builds cars."

      They are looking forward to a different market now.

      Say hello to Yvette, your new household worker and companion; and sing the body electric.

      KFG
    • by Atmchicago (555403) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @03:26PM (#16490603) Homepage

      A few misconceptions to clear up:

      1. The robots are not bipedal
      2. The scientists are from Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland
      • by Illserve (56215)
        A few misconceptions to clear up:

        The robots are not bipedal
        The scientists are from Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland


        But apart from these minor misconceptions, I think the GP has a great point.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by augustz (18082)
      A couple of reasons:

      - They already ARE making lots of functional type robots. Toyotas factories have these all over the place.
      - The world as it is is designed for bipedals. If you can model a humans' movement, you can operate much of the human world potentially (climb ladders, etc)
      - There is a potential market for the humanoid concept. I think the market is validated in some ways by the amount of coverage they are getting for these things.

    • Well, when you can only send one type of robot to mars, it is best to find the most adaptible one. Having one style of robot that is capable of lifting heavy objects, climbing a rope, driving a vehicle, fixing other robots, etc. is a powerful argument. It lessens the number of separate robots that need to be sent, it allows them to function for a longer time (self repair) using a single common stock of replacement parts. Most significant, they are capable of being modified purely in software to accomplis
    • by Shadowlore (10860)
      While the AI systems are clearly a joke, why focus so much energy on bipedal movement?

      You don't need strong AI to perform bipedal movement. The world of researchers does not have to choose between researching bidpeal movement and strong AI capable of interacting with other AIs; this is not a video game - you can research more than one thing in a nation, or even the world.

      Oh great a bunch of things that kind of resemble humans can lift something heavy all together. Why not just build a smart forklift to do t
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Quixadhal (45024)
      It has nothing to do with efficiency.

      The Japanese have created humanoid robots. They will create human-like robots. These robots will be made to look exactly like female humans that don't actually exist. Once that's done, it's just a matter of time before we will all welcome our Japanese Pr0n Overlords.
    • Can a smart forklift go up stairs? Or unload directly from the back of a truck, take a box up some stairs, through the front door, and into the living room?
    • When you use the term "AI," people immediately think of a human-like consciousness. The same phenomenon occurs with robotics. For some reason, creation of intelligent pseudo-life is likened in our minds with procreation. Hence, that creation is in our own image.

      "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the eart
    • by danpsmith (922127)
      I've often wondered this myself, why the preoccupation. But I'm going to put that off for a more important question. Since factory robots have essentially just replaced peoples' jobs, turning former manufacturing laborers into Walmart workers as they are replaced with machines and Chinese laborers, what happens when there's a robot capable of every job we have on earth. Essentially would everyone just be poor? Modern conveniences are supposed to make our workload easier, but when robots and computers do
    • by m0nstr42 (914269)

      All these Japanese companies are dead set on the whole humanoid robot concept. While the AI systems are clearly a joke, why focus so much energy on bipedal movement? It is clearly not the easiest mode of transportation. Human walking is essentially controlled falling. Oh great a bunch of things that kind of resemble humans can lift something heavy all together. Why not just build a smart forklift to do the same job autonomously. It just doesn't make any sense.

      Besides the fact that the comment has absolute

    • by jthill (303417)

      why focus so much energy on bipedal movement?

      It is clearly not the easiest mode of transportation.

      Umm.

      <knock/><knock/>

      Hello?

  • Cool. Natural selection will play a larger and larger role in robotics and R&D. Now that computers are of sufficient power to crunch large enough numbers, people are starting to use them for some pretty cool thing (like designing fission reactors as mentioned in TFA)
    I'm having trouble finding it, but there is an article that discusses the design of spacecraft antennae: Using natural selection to refine the shape to maximize efficiency. The thing that is cool about TFA is that these dudes use natural sel
  • ...and we need a way to destroy them, just clone a swarm of mini-"Ah-nulds" to travel back into the past to bite the ankles of the inventor of the robot-swarm!
  • Given their servers are already hosed I think they need some robots to hold the bandwidth load.
  • slashdotted (Score:5, Funny)

    by gerbouille (663639) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @03:13PM (#16490413) Homepage
    Watch the power of thousands of /.ers! Individually, they can't crash a web server, but together - with limited communication and intelligence - they can...
  • There have been a few previous efforts in this direction. Somebody, I think at UCLA, did some nice work in this area around 1990. They had a pair of small forklift-type machines which worked together to lift larger objects. One would get on each end of a couch, for example, and with very limited intercommunication but good force sensing, they'd move the couch together.

    That seemed a very practical idea, but it wasn't followed up at the time. There are many industrial and construction applications where

  • Management (Score:5, Funny)

    by 955301 (209856) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @03:26PM (#16490605) Journal

    Looking at the video, try to spot the project management behavior that shows up towards the end once four of the bots figure out how to drag the object over. One of them just stops doing anything and stands out away from the group as if trying to think of ways to empower the resources to realize their action items.

    It is this bot that must be destroyed before the future of robotics is harmed.
  • Reminds me of the robotic spiders in Minority Report that cooperated in searching. I thought it was a very cool scene.
  • Video server is ./'ed lookes like they need a "swarm" of servers in a beowulf cluster to handle this load.
  • ... by a Swarm of Green Robots.
  • Heh, the video clip looked like worker ants trying to work together to move the object.
  • Oh come on, I can't be the only one who thought of Pikmin when they saw that video. Anyone?
  • by willy_me (212994) on Wednesday October 18, 2006 @05:22PM (#16492445)
    I think that nature is a wonderful place from which researchers can gain inspiration. But when you stop and think about it robots and swarm intelligence just doesn't work. Robots are have different properties then insects and as a result, insect behavior doesn't transfer well to robots.

    It's all about energy. Both insects and robots have to be designed to optimize the amount of work done with their limited energy source. There are three basic tasks that consume energy.

    - thinking
    - communication
    - acting (ie, moving)

    Insects:

    Thinking is the most expensive task for an insect. Brains are expensive. They use a lot of energy and require a physical body to support the increased energy usage. As a result, insects don't think - they act. There actions are hard coded so as to minimize cost.

    Communication is difficult for insects to implement. Pheromones are relatively inexpensive, but impose serious limitations. Visual communication is possible (look at bees) but isn't used much. It also requires good eyesight and a neural network to decipher the images (both of which consume energy.) Audio communication is also possible but requires significant resources (ie, a brain) in order to be effective. In real life it is only used for the most basic forms of communication (look at crickets.) What I'm basically saying is that communication is expensive - as a result, insects found ways to work with minimal communication.

    Acting requires energy, but it is the most efficient of the three tasks. If you take into consideration that insects already require a body to acquire food and reproduce, the added cost of using that body to perform an action is minimal. Acting requires no additional parts, it only consumes a small additional amount of energy.

    Robots

    Acting is the most expensive task for a robot. To act, a robot requires a body. This adds weight, motors, complexity. Batteries suck, have a limited lifespan and are difficult to recharge. Nothing reduces an actor's lifespan quicker then acting. While new technology can improve the lifespan, it won't improve fast enough.

    Communication is expensive for a robot, but much cheaper then acting. Wireless communication allows for sophisticated communication between robots while using only a minimal amount of energy. New technology will improve the efficiency of communication more then it will the efficiency of acting.

    Thinking is cheap for a robot. New CPUs allow for complex programs while only consuming microamps.

    So this is what you have: (hight energy usage to low energy usage)

    insects - thinking, communicating, acting
    robots - acting, communicating, thinking

    They are the exact opposite. Does it really make sense to have robots mimic insects? It's crazy. A more efficient way for robots to perform a group task is to have them cooperate explicitly. Elect a leader, create a plan of action, distribute that plan, then act together while minimizing the amount of energy required.

    Willy
    • by m0nstr42 (914269)
      This is my area of research. You make some good points, but just like anything else the bottom line is the constraints of manufacturing and the application. In some cases, you're absolutely right - "swarm intelligence" isn't the right approach. But there definitely do exist cases when it's best, or even just plain necessary. In the end, a lot of the impetus is in terms of robustness, and natural swarms are very robust. The optimal solution is more than likely some combination of individual specializati
      • by willy_me (212994)
        My area of research is in wireless sensor and actor networks - which more or less covers this material. When it comes to robustness, there are decision making techniques that are more robust then swarms. My personal favorite is in utilizing auctions. An actor receives an event and decides it needs to act. It breaks up the task into subtasks and auctions those subtasks off to neighboring actors. The subtasks are assigned based on who can accomplish the task for the least cost. Actors then work together
        • by m0nstr42 (914269)
          I guess it depends what you want to call "swarm intelligence". I would call the auctioning scheme a member of a class of group decision making strategies, which is pretty cool and seems to be motivated by a natural (human in this case) phenomena. I'm interested in the effects of spatial dynamics on group decision making and information flow (time and space-varying graph topologies). It's *directly* motivated by a biological observation of a behavior exhibited in certain species of schooling fish. I cert
  • So where's the giant onion that makes these guys?
  • Could someone please explain why all the little robots appear to have glass bongs shooting out of their tops?

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." -- William James

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