Robot ‘Mission Impossible’ wins video prize
You could call it Mission Impossible: Robot Library Heist. An army of flying, rolling, and climbing robots have been taught to work together to find and snatch a book from a high shelf.
In a striking display of military-like precision, the robotic team, dubbed the “Swarmanoid”, attacks the problem with flying “eye-bots” and rolling “foot-bots”. A “hand-bot” then fires a grappling hook-like device up to the ceiling and scales the bookshelf. Footage of the experiment, conducted by Marco Dorigo at Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, and colleagues, won the video competition at the Conference on Artificial Intelligence in San Francisco earlier this week (an edited version appears above).
It’s a simple demonstration, but in the future Dorigo says the robots could be tasked with more difficult and important tasks. For instance, a bot team equipped like firefighters could wait in a building and spring to action when disaster strikes.
Six years ago, a swarm of identical rolling robots worked together to push a heavy object around a room. Integrating flying and climbing robots into the swarm allows it to explore its world faster, locate its objective, and perform more intricate tasks. Dorigo and his colleagues have so far amassed an army of 30 foot-bots, 10 eye-bots and eight hand-bots.
“It’s not common to do a practical demonstration with heterogenous swarms,” says Lynne Parker of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “A lot of demonstrations are really basic lab demonstrations. They’ve really made a good effort to show how all [the robots] come together.”
A swarm is born
When the Swarmanoid is first switched on, it knows nothing about its environment – a series of rooms with magnetic ceilings. One by one, flying eye-bots explore the rooms, searching for the target. Each one anchors itself to the magnetic ceiling once it’s almost out of communication range from the other robots.
Once an eye-bot has spied the target, it signals its hanging comrades to activate the foot-bots. These rolling minions form a column from a central bot nest to the target, creating a communication chain for the hand-bot escort team.
Two foot-bots snap onto the hand-bot, escort it to the bookshelf, and release it. Then the hand-bot launches a magnet-tipped string to the ceiling and climbs the side of the bookshelf hand-over-hand, using the line for stability.
After the hand-bot grabs the book, it lets go of the shelf. Suspended by the string, the bot lowers itself gently to the ground.
Speaking the same language
For this group of distinct bots to work together, they must all speak the same language. All bots have LEDs on their exteriors that allow them to flash different colours at each other to communicate. Also, an infrared signal helps each bot locate the others.
“It’s like talking,” Dorigo says. Just as humans localise different voices in a crowded hall, a robot can pick up an infrared beam and figure out the distance and direction to its source.
This constant communication could allow the robot swarm to adjust its actions on the fly, compensating for broken bots by reassigning tasks throughout the team.
For now, the Swarmanoid can only perform one task, as researchers focused their first experiment on group communication and hand-bot transportation. But Dorigo envisions the swarm as the silent safety crew of the future.
If there’s a fire in a building, some bots can fly around looking for injured people, while others extinguish the flames. “Obviously the mechanics, capacity and control of the robots need to be much improved before they can be applied in the real world,” Dorigo says.