from the May 19, 2005 edition -
When 'I Robot' becomes 'We Robot'
By Gregory M. Lamb | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
It sounds like classic sci-fi: Robots, linked by a common
network, roam the land. When one unit discovers something, they all
know it instantly. They use artificial intelligence to carry out their
Soon, such marching orders will be real, carried out by robot
groups known as "swarms" or "hives." For example:
. Last month, South Korea's Defense Ministry announced that it was
planning to spend up to $1.9 billion to deploy robots along its border
with North Korea. The robots would be used mainly for surveillance,
although some could be armed. The effort might allow South Korea to
remove some of its troops from along the 150-mile-long demilitarized
zone (DMZ), one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, a
defense ministry representative told the Associated Press.
. iRobot, a Burlington, Mass., company that makes military
robots along with its popular domestic robot, the Roomba vacuum
cleaner, operates perhaps the largest robot swarm in the world. About
100 experimental units operate as a team and have taught at least one
important lesson: Real-life robots need to be reminded to recharge
themselves. That's led to just such a feature on the Roomba, which now
returns to its charging base when its battery fades.
. The United States Army is developing a Future Combat System
(FCS) that includes a close network of troops and ground and aerial
unmanned robots. The robots would communicate with one another and
coordinate their activities based on the mission assigned to them.
"We're very interested" in hive or "swarm" technology, said
Dennis Muilenburg, FCS program manager at Boeing, which is being paid
$21 billion by the Army to oversee hundreds of contractors working on
the FCS program.
The FCS family of ground and aerial robots now under development
would include a 25-pound "flying fan" that could be carried in a
soldier's backpack, Mr. Muilenburg explained at a robotics conference
in Cambridge, Mass., last week. When launched, it would survey the
battlefield by hovering overhead or perching on a rooftop. A combat
unit of the near future, he said, might consist of 3,000 soldiers, 900
vehicles, and "hundreds of robots" -- some of them armed -- all
The US military will deploy networked robots "within five
years," predicts Helen Greiner, cofounder and chairman of iRobot.
Frontline Robotics, in Ottawa, is working with a South Korean
firm, DoDAAM Systems Ltd., in a bid to supply robots for the DMZ
defense project. The Canadian company plans to offer a line of
security robots that possess a significant level of individual
autonomy and "hive" intelligence, says Richard Lepack, president and
chief executive officer of Frontline, which merged last week with
White Box Robotics in Pittsburgh.
In a test last month, two of the company's robots were able to decide
for themselves which should enter a narrow passageway first. That's
something that may be easy for people, he says, but has been hard for robots
Frontline makes a robotic vehicle that looks like a small Jeep and
others that could be cousins of R2D2, one of the robots in the "Star Wars"
movies. A proprietary Robot Control System on each unit employs mathematical
formulas, or algorithms, that give it some basic movements such as following
the leader, avoiding obstacles, or wandering in an area.
The robots also can work as teams, with each having a leader. The
teams talk among themselves, and the leaders talk with one another. If a
leader is disabled, another robot automatically takes over.
"What one robot sees is shared among all the other team members in
real time," Mr. Lepack says. So what Robot A senses is immediately known to
Robots B, C, D, and so on.
Birds and bees, part II
Robotmakers find inspiration for their programs in nature: the
behavior of bee, ant, and wasp colonies, as well as of flocks of birds
and schools of fish. Ants, for example, communicate by leaving
pheromone trails that other ants can follow to food. Ants also work as
teams to distribute their workload, such as finding the most efficient
paths for foraging or deciding who will haul bits of leaves back to
the nest, without needing any directions from a leader.
In simulations on a computer at Frontline, teams of up to
200,000 robots were shown to be able to coordinate their activities
But computer simulations can only do so much, says Ms. Greiner
of iRobot. Software can't account for the unexpected, she
says. "Whatever you don't put in [to the simulation] will come back
and bite you."
'True swarms' The development of "true swarms," thousands or
tens of thousands of mobile robots working together, is many
years off and "depends on some things that haven't been invented
yet," Greiner says, including miniaturization of components and
better power sources and sensors.
Military deployment of networked robots will come first, she
says. For example, "searching for mines is inherently a parallel
task," since you don't want "to put all your eggs in one basket" if a
single robot gets blown up. Swarms will be an effective tool for
reconnaissance, too. In the foreseeable future, a soldier might take a
handful of tiny robots out of his pocket and send them into a building
to check it out, she says.
And in an imaginable future, swarms might do much of the routine
housework, Greiner says. They'd understand that the dusting robots
should come out before the vacuuming robots, which should do their job
before the mopping robots. The lawn-mowing robots would scurry around
before the raking robots cleaned up.
Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
*** FAIR USE NOTICE. This message contains copyrighted material the
use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright
owner. This Internet discussion group is making it available without
profit to group members who have expressed a prior interest in
receiving the included information in their efforts to advance the
understanding of literary, educational, political, and economic
issues, for non-profit research and educational purposes only. I
believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material
as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish
to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go
beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright
owner, in this instance, the Christian Science Publishing Society.
For more information go to: