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The secret to swarming robots? Simplicity

Simple robots that identify and move toward each other could open the way to armies of machines that measure pollution, pollinate plants, or fly through our bodies.

Robots like this one used in the study could one day swarm and tend our crops. Or take over the Earth. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

Robots working in conjunction with each other typically need complex onboard systems or input from a centralized computer or human overlord. Researchers at the UK's University of Sheffield have demonstrated that a much simpler system can get groups of robots working together. They've created a team of bots that are basic in design yet can recognize their own kind and move toward one other in a behavior known as "swarming" in the robot world.

Their findings were published Thursday in the International Journal of Robotics Research. The researchers say that someday, similar robots could form swarms that could monitor pollution or pollinate fields or be shrunk so small that they could move through our vascular systems to diagnose or treat us noninvasively.

The robots in the group of 40 used by the researchers measured about 4 inches wide. Each had a camera that could sense other robots and two wheels that let it move forward and backward and spin in a complete circle. Each bot was programmed to spin around until it saw another and then work its way toward its mechanical pal. Because the machines are so simple and don't require complex equipment, researchers believe they could one day be shrunk to the nano scale and deployed in large numbers.

"What we have shown is that robots do not need to compute to solve problems like that of gathering into a single cluster, and the same could be true for swarming behaviors that we find in nature, such as in bacteria, fish, or mammals," Roderich Gross, of the university's Sheffield Centre for Robotics, explained in a statement. "This means we are able to 'scale up' these swarms, to use thousands of robots that could then be programmed to perform tasks."

In the video below, researcher Melvin Gauci explains that the next step is to try to get robots to swarm in three dimensions rather than just on a flat plane. Yes, people -- that means flying, swarming robots. Add that to work done on swarming robots at Harvard a few years ago, and anybody who's read Michael Crichton's "Prey" knows what's coming next. Nice knowing ya!