A swarm of tiny robots, called as “Kilobots”, invaded Harvard University lab, well not literally. A swarm of 1024 (210, for the math geeks) tiny robots, were programmed to work together without any central guidance system.

According to the article published in Science Magazine, these kilobots, similar to a flash mob, can self-assemble to any shapes programmed according to the researches at Harvard’s Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

One of the authors of the paper Prof. Radhika Nagpal said, “The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple and yet, in large numbers accomplish the seemingly impossible. At some level, you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself”.

The team of scientists were inspired by insects in nature such as honey bees, termites and flock of birds. The key link to all these natures creations is that there is no single bee or an insect or a bird that is in-charge, they all work together to perform complex tasks. The kilobots act like a swarm of bees or termites and self-arrange themselves without any external human intervention except the initial command given.

The demonstration included formation of a star fish; letter K, stands for Kilobots, and the researchers expect this could be the future of the robotics. This is the first time that more than 100 robots have been demonstrated to collaborate and operate together similar to biological cells that bind together to form complex organisms.

“Biological collectives involve enormous numbers of cooperating entities – whether you think of cells or insects or animals – that together accomplish a single task that is a magnitude beyond the scale of any individual,” said Michael Rubenstein, another author of the article.

Credit: Michael Rubenstein, Harvard University

Some speculate this experiment as a precursor to heralding the era of transformers. The notable accomplishment of this experiment is that once the initial set of commands were given without any micromanagement the robots go to work, starting with establishing an origin and then using primitive behaviors, such as calculating distance from the origin and maintaining relative location they turn and arrange towards the optimum position as dictated by the initial set of commands. Scientists predict that this technology may be leveraged to monitor traffic jams and resolve them in cities in the future, similarly these may be used during long space journeys etc. Still many more applications that haven’t been thought of yet.

The Kilobot robot design and software was originally created in Prof. Nagpal’s group at Harvard University, but are available open-source for non-commercial use. The Kilobots have also been licensed by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development to K-Team, a manufacturer of these tiny mobile robots. The kilobots are very tiny no larger than diameter of a cent. It is estimated that cost of one kilobit is around $14. The small mobile robots are available for purchase through redistributors, check out the K-Team’s website for more information.


Nabeel Ahmad is the founder and editor-in-chief of Lone Mind. Apart from Lone Mind, he is a serial entrepreneur, and has founded multiple successful companies in different industries.

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