RoboSwarms & RoboSkins (warning: not for the paranoid)

Sometimes the biggest breakthroughs lead to the worst nightmares. I often wake up shaken from a recurring image of insect swarms. Now at the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom) has taken the idea of robotic swarms to a whole new level. This follows the Harvard experiment last year:

Swarm robotics studies how large groups of robots can interact with each other in simple ways to solve relatively complex tasks cooperatively. In the Sheffield study, published recently in Swarm Intelligence journal (yes, that’s a real thing), the researchers used the supervisory control theory for the first time with a swarm of robots to reduce the need for human input and, therefore, error.

The Kilobots, a swarm of one thousand simple but collaborative robots

The researchers used a graphical tool to define the tasks they wanted the robots to achieve, a machine then automatically programmed and translated this to the robots. This program used a form of linguistics, comparable to using the alphabet in the English language. It allowed the robots use their own alphabet to construct words, with the ‘letters’ of these words relating to what the robots perceived and to the actions they chose to perform. The supervisory control theory helped the robots to choose only those actions that eventually resulted in valid “words.” Hence, the behavior of the robots was guaranteed to meet the specification.

A previous research used “trial and error” methods to automatically program groups of robots, which can result in unpredictable, and undesirable, behavior. Moreover, the resulting source code was time-consuming to maintain, which made it difficult to use in the real-world. However, the new research showed that the new method could be used in a situation where a team is needed to tackle a problem and each individual robot is capable of contributing a particular element, which could be hugely beneficial in a range of contexts, from manufacturing to agricultural environments.

“Our research poses an interesting question about how to engineer technologies we can trust – are machines more reliable programmers than humans after all? We, as humans set the boundaries of what the robots can do so we can control their behavior, but the programming can be done by the machine, which reduces human error,” said Dr Roderich Gross from Sheffield.

Reducing human error in programming also has potentially significant financial implications. The global cost of debugging software is estimated at $312 billion annually and on average and software developers spend 50 percent of their programming time finding and fixing bugs.

From roboswarms to roboskins, moving across the pond to Switzerland researchers at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have created a new epidermis like platform for electronics. Their new substance enables thin electronic circuits to be stretched like rubber up to four times their original length in any direction. In addition, it can be cycled that way nearly a million times without cracking or losing conductivity. That makes it perfect for smart fabrics, biological sensors, prosthetics and, yes, artificial skin.

The hybrid material is based on both liquid metal and solid metal alloys. The team first created a film using silicone-based substrate called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). They then formed a metallic bi-layer by evaporating gallium onto a sputtered gold film a mere 60 nanometers thick. When the solid part of the gold alloy is stretched, cracks can form, but they’re quickly filled by the liquid gallium, which has a melting point of 29.8 degrees Celcius (85.6 degrees F). Best of all, the final material can be lithographed onto any surface in complex patterns just like regular electronic circuits.

Without the need to print circuits on a board, the team has dreamed up all kinds of usage scenarios.

“We can integrate conventional electronics into assemblies that stretch and carry power, we can use it in soft robotics and smart clothing… but we can also use it to construct actuators that give tactile feedback,” says EPFL researcher, Arthur Hirsch.

If you see a crazy woman trying to get her hands on this, we know we are now one step closer to Judgement Day…

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