Can you control a swarm of robots with a single controller that has the same effect on all of them? You can find out by playing a game and helping develop new control algorithms.
Imagine that you have a lot of nearly identical robots and you need a way to control them. Controlling each separately is possible, but it would take a lot of computing power and a big communications bandwidth. The question is, can they be controlled and made to do useful things using a single central signal? For example, what could you achieve if the robots simply all followed the same rule - move towards the light?
Could you make them do useful things by simply changing the position and intensity of the light?
The following video should convince you that you can:
If you watch carefully at the beginning, you can see some of the principles of control, in particular the use of an obstacle to make one of the swarm behave differently. What isn't as easy to see is that the control mechanism depends on each robot having a slightly different response to the control stimulus.
In a paper to be presented next month at IROS 2013, researchers, Aaron Becker and James McLurkin, prove that as long as the robots are all slightly different you can create an algorithm that will move each one to a different target position.
The overall idea is to use an attractive, or repulsive, point source to move the swarm in such a way that their combined flow moves other physical objects or changes the environment in some way. The problem is very similar to herding sheep with a single dog.
You can see a convincing demonstration of 100 robots assembling and delivering a component in the next video:
Notice that having algorithms of this sort would allow nanobots to move atoms and build useful nanomachines. There are many other possibilities, including using controlled swarms in medicine and research - for example sorting all the cells in a Petri dish. It is also worth noticing that the same algorithms might be relevant to morphogenesis, i.e the way living cells create regular structures.
Despite having some theoretical results on how to control swarms, the research team would like you to help by playing some fun games. Your task is to play sheepdog, or perhaps that should be robot dog, and herd some robots into performing some task or another. As well as being fun, it is also very instructive and in no time at all you start to try out heuristics to see if you can improve your performance.
When you think of the potential of this research there is no doubt that it could be the most important robot research going on at the moment.