When I think of the word swarm, my first thought is Michael Crichton's evil nano-bots and the terrible end of civilization that comes from unleashing tiny robots.
So James McLurkin got on stage at the Singularity Summit at the 92nd St. Y to talk about multi-robot systems...I confess, I expected to see signs of the apocalypse. Robots working together had to spell bad news.
McLurkin was a lead research scientist at iRobot Corp., where he managed the DARPA-funded Swarm Robotics project. Swarm robots work collectively on tasks --like a colony of ants or bees --and can do some jobs faster and better than humans, McLurkin explained.
"When we had the big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it would have been fantastic to have 1,000 little robots swimming around in the Gulf  to identify where the oil went,” he said. "Earthquakes offer another practical application. Humans are particularly ill-suited to look for survivors after earthquakes--we are too big and too weak. Swarms of small robots could penetrate the rubble and carry out a coordinated search much faster and more safely."
And then, after explaining how groups of small, low-cost robots could solve problems better than large, expensive ones, he brought his troop of charming little robots on stage for a demonstration:
VIDEO: James McLurkin at Sinularity Summit
McLurkin is working with grad students at Rice University to build software to control his new micro-robot creation. "I want robots to be as popular as scientific calculators," McLurkin said. "I want to support a curriculum where every student has their own robot and can study individual lessons, and where they can also work in teams--using their robots collectively in multi-robot systems."
McLurkin's Lab, known as the Multi-Robot Systems Laboratory, specializes in hardware and software that teaches robots to work as swarms. Today, each of his test robots cost about $2,000--far too much to build a large swarm. "I wanted Rice's R-one robots to be cheap enough that I could build hundreds of them," McLurkin said. "Lowering the cost was a way to make it possible for our lab to study large swarms, but it was also a way to give something back to the robotics community, to make it possible to put these into any classroom or aftercare program that wants them."
Video: James McLurkin at Rice University
After hearing McLurkin talk about and demonstrate his Swarm Robots, I'm able to see them more as ants, and less as intruders. And it's clear that there are problems in the world that can be more effectively tackled with teams of swarming and connected task oriented 'bots rather than the humanoid creatures that have come to represent robots through science fiction and popular culture.
Tiny swarming robots may be our friends, after all.