25C3 -

25th Chaos Communication Congress
Nothing to hide

Jeff Gough
Day Day 2 (2008-12-28)
Room Saal 3
Start time 18:30
Duration 01:00
ID 2890
Event type lecture
Track Making
Language used for presentation en

Scalable Swarm Robotics

Formica: a cheap, open research platform

The topic of swarm robotics will be introduced, including the current state of the art and some current research platforms. The problems of scalability in robot swarms will be discussed, particularly of programming and maintaining a large group of robots. The Formica platform represents a novel, very low cost approach to swarm robotics. Its design and implementation will be described, and the lecture will culminate in a live demonstration of a swarm of 25 robots cooperating on a task.

Swarm robotics is a hot research area. In cases such as earthquake rescue or planetary exploration, a swarm of cheap, simple robots may benefit from redundancy and distributed problem-solving. However, the cost of current robotics platforms prohibits experimentation with swarms numbering more than a few tens of units. As a result, the practicalities of software and hardware maintenance in large swarms are yet to be addressed.

At the University of Southampton, four colleagues and I developed a small, low-cost platform for swarm robotics research. We named it Formica. 25 robots 25x25x15mm in size were designed and built, costing only £25 each. They are capable of infrared communication, sensing and reprogramming, autonomous charging, and can drive for around 2 hours before a recharge. Low power MSP430 microcontrollers are used, with 16kB of program memory and 512 bytes of RAM. We presented the robots at ALIFE XI, the 11th international conference on artificial life, where they attracted a lot of attention from other researchers and the press. As a result, we have released the hardware and software under open source licenses to encourage further development in the community.

I would like to describe the design of the Formica platform and introduce some of the research it is used for. The swarm of 25 robots was assembled and tested by a small team of students in a single day. I will briefly describe how we overcame the problems of mass production on a very low budget. I will take questions from the audience, and encourage 25C3 attendees to hack on the platform. Finally, I will give a live demonstration of the swarm in action.

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