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The SWARM: Coming to a battlefield near you

University of Pennsylvania receives grant to study swarming behavior and adapt it to military robots.


Scientists are working to imbue unmanned vehicles with the "swarm" mentality found in some animals and insects, allowing armed robots to coordinate their efforts on the battlefield in much the same way piranhas attack a floundering cow.

The University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science has received a $7.5 million grant from the military to develop principles of cooperation that mimic biological organisms, then reduce those principles to state-of-the-art algorithms for use in next-generation aerial and ground robots capable of collaborating with humans.

The project, which involves eight universities, will take an interdisciplinary approach that brings together experts in artificial intelligence, control theory, robotics, systems engineering, and biology to understand and capitalize on swarming behaviors in nature.

"Our objective is to bring together experts in different disciplines who normally do not interact," said George Pappas, professor of electrical and systems engineering and deputy dean of the engineering school at Penn. "The unique challenge of this program is finding cooperation principles for heterogeneous robots, where different robots may have uniquely different capabilities. How can aerial and ground robots work together? How can teams of robots work with teams of humans? These are some of the challenging questions we hope to address in this project."


The five-year grant was awarded by the Office of Naval Research under the Defense Department's Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative program. The other schools include Georgia Tech (PDF) the University of California at Berkeley, Arizona State University, the University of Washington, Michigan Tech, Yale, and MIT. Research on the subject, under a project called SWARM (Scalable sWarms of Autonomous Robots and Mobile Sensors) and others, is already well under way.

Schools, flocks, packs, and swarms of animals all act cooperatively with limited communication in hostile environments, rapidly and fluidly adapting their hierarchy and roles to suit the circumstances. The question for the Penn team is whether a large number of robot vehicles can be directed to act in a "swarm" mode in response to commands from an omniscient authority. Skynet comes to mind.