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Studying natural swarms

Studying natural swarms
A lot of problems in robotics require not just one robot but many. Consider, for example, a disaster like an earthquake happens and you want to search for humans. If you have only one robot this takes a lot of time. So, it’s a natural scenario where you can use a lot of robots. Another scenario is if you want to construct a building perhaps. If you have a single robot to do that, that takes a lot of time. And the big question is, how do you coordinate the actions of all your robots so that they are working together as a good team and very effectively? And that’s exactly where we look at nature.
So, in nature, you have a number of examples from social insects, for example, where a lot of organisms work together as teams and as large swarms. Consider termites. They are building these massive mounds. And although every termite itself is very, very small, these mounds are very impressive. And they are also very complex. But the rules that these termites have, by contrast, are very simple. And unlike a lot of things that get constructed by humans, these termite mounds are not constructed in a top-down approach, but in a bottom-up fashion. So, what does that mean? So, this means that the termites, they don’t necessarily have a blueprint of what’s going on. And they don’t have leaders that tell them what to do.
But rather, they are chatting with each other, so to speak, and self-organize and find a solution by interaction, rather than by someone telling them what to do.

So far this week, we have seen how bioinspiration can influence the design of individual robots. But the natural world can also offer a solution for multi-robot systems where robots need to work cooperatively.

In this video, Dr Roderich Gross explains what the collective behaviour of social insects such as ants and termites can offer the field of robotics. This is a subject we will return to next week when we take a closer look at robots working in teams.


Can you think of any other organisms that work cooperatively? What do you think roboticists can learn from the way these organisms interact?
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