Swarms of Droplet Robots Could Map Oil Spills

As electronic components plummet in price thanks to the impractical consumer-driven pace of mobile device development, it’s becoming more and more realistic to talk about building robots that are cheap enough to be disposable. The appeal of doing this is that you can build lots of them, and then throw them all together into a giant swarm that has capabilities individual robots (even very complex and expensive ones) don’t. And by “lots,” we’re talking hundreds. Even thousands.

The last time we heard about swarm robots on this scale was with Kilobots (which are for sale, by the way), but now a group at University of Colorado Boulder is looking for some help to crowdfund a huge swarm of their own little robots, called Droplets.

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Here’s what you get with Droplets:

Unlimited running time without stopping to recharge (they get power from the floor through their legs)Omnidirectional motion (six linear directions and turn-in-place)Directional communication with user-settable communication range from <_1cm to="to">1m Range and bearing sensingTrue-color, full-body illumination RGB color sensing Self-rightingDroplet-to-droplet reprogramming Expandable RAM/Flash

Currently, they’re designed to work in a dedicated arena, which has a powered floor, supports IR communication with the Droplets, and also includes an overhead camera and projector system. It’s a system with a lot of potential, but even though each individual Droplet is relatively cheap, they’re not that cheap, and even if they were, a thousand robots (or even a hundred robots) is still a lot of robots. So, CU Boulder is trying out crowdfunding to make a giant swarm happen.

The Droplets project is looking for at least US $10,000 to construct what looks like 100 robots. This isn’t to suggest that each robot actually costs $100: a full 50 percent of that $10k goes straight to the cast that has to be made in order to efficiently injection-mold the plastic outer shells. So, all that the CU Boulder team needs to make a full thousand robots is $30,000, since once the molds are out of the way and volume discounts kick in, the price per robot drops to $30.

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As for what CU Boulder says they’d do with a huge swarm of Droplets: they want to start teaching college-level swarm intelligence classes, high school-level classes that use the robots as visual aids (cool!), make the robots available to artists to get creative with, and definitely not take over the world. In a Youtube video (below) they say that thousands of swarmbots could be used to create realtime maps of environmental disasters such as oil spills.

We love swarm robotics, and the crowdfunding idea is an interesting way to go, but the thing we really want (a Droplet of our own) isn’t one of the rewards. For $30, you can name an individual Droplet, but because they require infrastructure to function (a powered floor and cameras and stuff), you won’t be taking one home with you. Or at least, you won’t be unless the campaign hits a few million dollars and Droplets suddenly become cheap enough that they end up running around all over the place, whether we want them to or not.

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This article originally appeared on IEEE Spectrum; all rights reserved.

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