London, Aug 10 : The day when swarms of robots will be exploring space or doing dangerous jobs on Earth is close to reality, for it is now possible to create self-assembling robot chains as well as tiny robots for just 24 pounds, say researchers.
Roboticists displayed promising prototypes of co-operating robots were on show at the Artificial Life XI conference, and said that swarms of robots may have an upper hand over self-contained ones, as far as adaptability and smartness are concerned.
"For a long time in robotics there was this focus on a 'smart machine', an android that would make you breakfast and go out and buy your shopping. But that's extremely challenging; it's going to be far easier for us to engineer little simple things and rely on them to organise themselves," BBC quoted Dr Seth Bullock, the University of Southampton researcher chairing the Alife XI conference, as saying.
A group of undergraduate students at the University of Southampton has developed a swarm of identical, matchbox-sized robots, each of which takes just 24 pounds to be produced.
They showed that swarm robots could independently divide up tasks, without being controlled by any central program.
They skitter around, communicating as they encounter each other via the same kind of infrared technology used in mobile phones.
Robots were tagged with Red and green lights to show which task they had chosen, and in few minutes it was observed that the group autonomously divided itself - 80 pct red and 20 pct green.
In case a few "green" robots were removed from the arena, the remainder redistributed themselves again into the 80/20 split.
This, according to the scientists gave swarm robotics an edge over traditional approaches for far-flung missions.
"You might have some complex robot that is sent to Mars, has a technical problem, and then the mission is basically over. With swarm robots, even if a percentage of them fails, they'll still be able to achieve their goal," said Klaus-Peter Zauner, the leader of the Southampton swarm robot project.
Also on display at Alife XI was Sbot, part of a European-funded collaboration between the Free University of Brussels and the Institute for Cognitive Science and Technology (ISTC) in Rome.
The Sbot robots have powerful grippers, and when they encounter each other, they independently decide who will grip whom. The team has linked up chains of as many as 20 of the robots in a demonstration of self-organising co-operation.
"If you design software with typical engineering tools like 'if this and that then do this', it's like playing a chess game by calculating all the possible moves-you'll never get there," said Elio Tuci, an ISTC researcher involved in the project.
The Sbots make use of software that learns and adapts as it encounters different situations.
Two of the most favoured applications for swarm robots are planetary exploration and assembly of satellites and space stations.
On Earth, swarms of tiny robots like the Southampton prototypes could be deployed in a collapsed building, for instance, dividing their tasks among looking for survivors and checking for further dangers such as gas leaks.