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Cell phone tech for swarm robots

University students in the U.K. think small--and dial into big savings for robotics researchers.

The tiny motors normally used to vibrate cell phones can provide researchers with a significantly more affordable option for building robots.

A team of students led by Alexis Johnson at the University of Southampton's electronics and computer science school realized the tiny motors intended for cell phone vibration are already designed and manufactured to be attached to circuit boards making them ideally suited for use in swarm robots.

Using those motors, the group designed a new type of robot platform that brought their material cost down to about $48 (24 pounds) per robot, according to a university announcement Wednesday.

Research into swarm robotics focuses on coordinating large numbers of identical robots, often small and compact, to collectively work together.

The Southampton team's 25 swarm robots are capable of performing autonomously for up to two hours at a time before needing to be recharged or running out of code capacity. The robots also have enough processing power to run complex algorithms.

"This is truly exciting: now we can order robots from the same U.K. companies that regularly make circuit boards for our projects--for them it is just a circuit board they can mass-produce like any other, but actually it is a complete functional robot," Klaus-Peter Zauner, professor of bio-robotics at Southampton, said in a statement.

The new, inexpensive platform might also force robotics researchers to focus more on swarm robotics software development. Some students have already been addressing how software might effectively control thousands of robots at once by looking at the way "bacteria exchange code for drug resistance," Zauner said.

Swarm robots have become popular among researchers, government agencies, and companies addressing needs for data gathering in hard-to-reach places like hazmat areas, post-earthquake rubble, and buildings held by hostiles in a war scenario. Even toy companies have been embracing the idea of low-tech, affordable robot bugs.

The cell phone motor robots are scheduled to be demonstrated Wednesday at the annual International Conference on Artificial Life, which is being held in Europe for the first time.