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Bite-size Kilobots robots ready to swarm

Harvard University designs a system to manage hundreds of miniature, communicating Kilobots at once, letting researchers and hobbyists test ways that the minibots can move and work collectively.

Kilobots ready for action
Michael Rubenstein/Harvard University

If you've ever dreamed of filming a science fiction movie where an army of robots takes over the world, Harvard University has just the toy prop for you.

Harvard said this week it has developed and licensed software technology for managing large numbers of mini robots, called Kilobots.

Despite what might be considered an alarming name, the "kil" in Kilobots refers to "thousands" (kilos), rather than what they were designed to do. The mini robots, which move on three stick legs, are the size of a quarter, cost about $15 in parts, and are made by Swiss manufacturer K-Team, which signed the licensing deal with Harvard.

Kilobots are equipped with a microprocessor and a transceiver that allows them to beam messages via infrared to neighbors. Engineers in Harvard's Self-Organizing Systems Research Group developed a system, which includes software and an overhead infrared transmitter, to communicate with the diminutive bots en masse.

The technology allows a researcher or robot hobbyist to check the battery level or transmit instructions to hundreds or thousands of robots at once. The state of the art is communicating with just a few robots at a time, according to Harvard.

"The Kilobot will provide researchers with an important tool for understanding how to design and build large, distributed, functional systems," Michael Mitzenmacher, the dean for computer science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said in a statement.

Harnessing the collective power of minibot swarms can be used to perform dangerous missions, such as searching through rubble for earthquake survivors or laborious tasks, such as pollinating crops, according to Harvard. "Plus, tiny robots are really cool!" added Mitzenmacher.