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For a glimpse of the robot swarm of the future, Will Smith explains the secrets of swarming behavior on "Welcome to Earth," an original new documentary series unspooling on Disney+ featuring Will Smith (screenshot courtesy of Disney+).

Autonomous Vehicles

It’s Time To Start Thinking About Robot Swarms Again (CleanTechnica Interview)

For a glimpse of the robot swarm of the future, Will Smith explains the secrets of swarming behavior on “Welcome to Earth,” an original new documentary series unspooling on Disney+ featuring Will Smith.

The new TV series Welcome to Earth from Nutopia is full of surprises, and among them is “The Mind of the Swarm,” a closeup look at the dynamics of swarm behavior. That episode unravels the mystery of why a wildebeest chooses to jump into a river full of hungry crocodiles (spoiler alert: swarm behavior), and the broader message ripples out to the world of robot swarms and their potential use for good, not evil.

Welcome To Earth: The Mind Of The Swarm

Before we get to that thing about robot swarms, CleanTechnica had a chance to speak with the person behind the series, Jane Root, who is the President of Discovery Networks and the founder of the well-known US production company Nutopia, which is credited with creating the “mega-doc” action-driven documentary format.

That’s a perfect approach for an examination of swarm behavior, especially when your subjects are tens of thousands of 600-pound wildebeest.

“When you explore the energy of crowds, it’s much more than a mob. There’s a sense of purpose, whether its an orchestra or a herd of wildebeest,” Root explained. “They tramp for hundreds of miles across the savanna, all moving in the same direction. But, like an orchestra they don’t look at each other for clues. There is no gap between thinking and doing. It’s perfectly calibrated how the swarm becomes one thing.”

See for yourself — Welcome to Earth is a 6-part original limited series from National Geographic streaming exclusively on Disney+, directed by Darren Aronofsky and featuring the intrepid Will Smith with a cast of experts.

So, About Those Robot Swarms

Not to give anything away, but parts of the Mind of the Swarm episode rely on drones, which Root describes as “military grade technology never used on wildlife before.”

“Flying a drone is difficult, and flying it at night is even more difficult,” she explained. “You’re getting close to things that nobody else can. There is no big noise, no helicopter, so there is a sense of intimacy, born from technology.”

If that sounds like someone talking about the advantages of robot swarms for environmental monitoring, you’re on the money. One gigantic research vessel or vehicle with a noisy engine can only get so much done before it disrupts the environment it seeks to study. Electric technology can help reduce the noise, but the sheer bulk of conventional research equipment can be an obstacle, and that’s where the idea of spreading tasks among swarms of silent, tiny robots comes in.

Back in 2009 CleanTechnica took note of 7 robots with green jobs, one of which involved ball-shaped robots designed to drift on the ocean in swarms, to collect data on microorganisms.

“They could also guard sensitive areas or provide on-the-spot information about oil spills, plane crashes and other marine emergencies,” we wrote.

In 2012 we checked out the “Scalybot 2” robot project under way at Georgia Tech, which was an energy efficient search and rescue robot based on the movement of snakes. The research team was also examining the swarming behavior of fire ants. Individual fire ants cannot swim, but they can swarm into formations of floating balls in order to cross water.

That gave rise the possibility of swarms of robotic ant-snakes.

“In combination with robots like Scalybot 2, the result could be swarms of small robots that can navigate tricky terrain and can autonomously assemble into larger formations to overcome obstacles that are beyond the capabilities of an individual,” we wrote.

If that seems a little farfetched, take a look at the self-fueling robotic jellyfish surveillance device under development that same year, in a joint hookup between Virginia Tech and the US Navy.

“…the finished concept is for a device that can supply its own energy through a reaction between oxygen and hydrogen in seawater, using platinum as a catalyst. The reaction creates enough energy in the form of heat to operate the robot’s propulsion system, without the need for batteries or any external fuel source,” we wrote.

Onward & Upward For The (Good) Robot Swarm Of The Future

The year 2012 certainly was a banner one for robot swarms. Johns Hopkins University chipped into the research with plans for developing a micro aerial vehicle no bigger than a bug.

“As highly fuel efficient micro machines, MAV’s could become an essential part of the sustainable tech landscape, for example in wind turbine maintenance and other clean energy tasks, data collection, and  environmental monitoring. They could also be useful in emergency response, especially as the ‘search’ part of a search and rescue operation.”

For whatever reason, the whole idea of robot swarms fell off the CleanTechnica radar shortly after. In 2014 we covered a swarming robotics project involving ocular technology based on bees, and that was that.

Much has happened since then. Just yesterday our friends over at Inc. Magazine waxed enthusiastically over robot swarms.

“Army ants are a good example: Millions of them work together to complete tasks, such as building nests, without any leader in charge,” they wrote. “The insects will even create bridges and ladders out of their own bodies to allow fellow ants to traverse gaps and rough terrain. Other organisms, from cells to flocks of birds to schools of fish also exhibit collective intelligence as they move in sync with one another.”

In a rather odd coincidence of names, the Inc. article cites Radhika Nagpal, founder of the educational robotics company ROOT Robotics (acquired by iRobot in 2019). Go figure!

Not for nothing, but Nagpal is also Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a founding Faculty Member of the Harvard Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

Meanwhile, last month word dropped of a robot swarm project at Texas A&M University, where the focus is on solving the problem of “smart” agriculture systems that rely on heavy machinery that compacts the soil and may have other environmental consequences — so maybe they aren’t so smart after all.

“The use of adaptive swarm robotics has the potential to provide significant environmental and economic benefits to smart agriculture efforts globally through the implementation of autonomous ground and aerial technologies,” TAMU explains, adding that this approach “could result in long-term benefits thanks to reduced waste through better logistics, optimal use of water and fertilizer, and an overall reduction in the use of pesticides.”

“The research team believes that by utilizing smaller machines to reduce soil compaction and working to avoid herbicide-resistant weeds through nonchemical methods of control, significant ecological and environmental benefits can be achieved,” they add even more.

Thinking ahead, it’s possible that the field of robot swarms will intersect with the emerging field of agrivoltaics, which provides for growing crops within arrays of solar panels. The challenge is how to maneuver conventional farming machinery around the solar panels, but an automated swarm of ag-robots could do the trick.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image (screenshot): Swarming behavior in wildebeest courtesy of Disney+ Originals.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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