Swarms of tiny robots can navigate forest fires and conduct search and rescue operations most effectively when communication between the robots is kept to a minimum, new research has found.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield discovered that robots work together and adapt to changes in their surroundings more efficiently when programmed to communicate only with other robots within 10cm of each other rather than the whole swarm.
Swarms of tiny robots can make better decisions
The study, published in the journal Science Robotics, disproves the widely-accepted theory that greater numbers of communications between robots leads to more effective exchange of information.
The team observed a swarm of robots when each robot was able to assess its environment and broadcast its findings to the rest of the swarm.
“Each robot assessed the environment individually, made its own decision on the best area and broadcast its opinion to the rest of the swarm,” the researchers wrote.
“Every robot in the swarm then periodically selected a random assessment that had been broadcast by another robot in the swarm and used it to update its opinion on the best area – a protocol known in robotics as the voter model.”
The protocol allowed the group to reach a consensus on the best area of a cordoned-off pen to explore and gather information.
However, instructing the robots to broadcast their “opinion” to others within a 10cm range helped them to adapt to changes and to locate the best area more quickly, the researchers found.
“Swarms of robots have huge potential to help us access places that are either too hazardous or simply inaccessible to humans,” said Dr Andreagiovanni Reina, from the University of Sheffield’s department of computer science.
“For example, they could fly over a forest fire that is too vast or dangerous for humans to tackle alone, monitor how the fire spreads and decide where help is needed the most.”
If a fire changes direction and support is urgently needed in another area, the swarm must swiftly adapt and identify where to concentrate their attention, he said.
“Our findings could be used to develop swarms of robots that are more responsive and able to make the right decisions much quicker than they currently can do,” he added.
Miniature robots hardy enough to withstand tough environments could prove extremely useful for helping to locate missing humans and to help relief efforts during disasters.
Researchers from Harvard University have been developing a small robot inspired by the biology of a bee that is capable of flying, swimming, propelling itself out of the water and back into the air for more than a decade.
The RoboBee, which measures 1mm in length, could similarly be used in future search and rescue missions thanks to its ability to weather differing environments.