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Inventor of swarming robots wins prize

Swarming robots that can act in concert and mimic the behavior of bees net a 30-year-old doctoral candidate in computer science the annual Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

Swarming robots that can act in concert and mimic the behavior of bees have netted James McLurkin, a 30-year-old doctoral candidate in computer science, the annual Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

McLurkin's robots are programmed to cluster, disperse, follow one another and orbit, similar to the way bees work together in a hive. Equipped with sensors and radio equipment, the robots are capable of detecting environmental stimuli and of contacting the rest of the group, which can then collectively accomplish a preprogrammed task.

Such robots could be used, hypothetically, to operate equipment remotely or to monitor and correct environmental hazards. During a class project, McLurkin organized around 20 of the robots to play music together.

McLurkin's project combines two relatively active areas of research: sensors and robots. A number of universities and private companies are working on MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), which are sensors and micromachines that can collect data from the physical world. Concurrently, a number of start-ups and established companies say that machine navigation and artificial intelligence are once again gaining momentum.

"James is a clever and inspired inventor," Rodney A. Brooks, director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said in a statement.

McLurkin started to work in this area as an undergraduate at MIT. His undergrad thesis involved created robotic ants that could pass messages to one another and hunt for food. He kept a container of ants on his desk to study how they interacted.

After getting a master's degree at Cal Tech in electrical engineering, McLurkin returned to MIT. The robotic swarm project is part of his doctoral thesis in computer science, and is part of an effort at iRobot, a Somerville, Mass.-based start-up. McLurkin is lead scientist at the company.

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is one of the larger student grants in the country and comes with a $30,000 award. The annual Lemelson-MIT award that's open to all inventors comes with a $500,000 grant. Last year, Segway inventor Dean Kamen won.

The Lemelson Foundation was created by Jerome Lemelson, one of the more polarizing figures in modern day patent life. Lemelson obtained more than 500 patents in his life. He did not use these patents to create companies geared toward manufacturing products, however. Instead, he filed lawsuits against a number of companies, including General Motors and Otis Elevator, when elements of his designs allegedly showed up in later products such as bar-code scanners.

Settlements and verdicts in the more than 135 so-called Lemelson lawsuits led to millions for Lemelson and his allies. Although defense lawyers regularly criticized the suits, professors and others often come to his defense. The Lemelson charitable foundation has access to over $250 million and donates to a variety of causes to promote scientific education.