NASA engineers have built four robots nicknamed “Swarmies” to test whether a group of robots can autonomously and effectively scout an area for resources, and they’ve model the software design after how ants do the same thing. It’s like a very complicated, expensive game of SimAnt.
The Swarmies are each equipped with a webcam, GPS, and Wi-Fi, and will be searching the parking lots of NASA’s Kennedy Launch Control Center for barcoded pieces of paper that will be standing in for valuable resources. If a swarmie finds a collection of these piece of paper, it will call its friends over to to help “collect” the material. This is meant to mimic the way ants use chemical signals to signal other ants when they find a food source.
It appears the Swarmies won’t actually be collecting the paper, just scanning them. Still, the tests are meant as a proof of concept. If the team can get the Swarmies working properly it could serve as a model for future rovers to work together to scout other planets. Those hypothetical rovers would be equipped with tools to identify and retrieve things like water, ice, and other valuable resources from alien soil.
If these early tests continue to be successful, the engineers hope to refine the software to allow for an expanded group of robots. They also hope to bring the experimental NASA mining robot RASSOR to the party and test ways to retrieve the resources their robots find. RASSOR and the Swarmies are a bit of a departure from other NASA robots like the Curiosity rover, which is essentially an SUV-sized laboratory.
Kurt Leucht, one of the engineers working on the Swarmies project, said:
For a while people were interested in putting as much smarts and capability as they could on their one robot. Now people are realizing you can have much smaller, much simpler robots that can work together and achieve a task. One of them can roll over and die and it’s not the end of the mission because the others can still accomplish the task.
The teams also thinks the Swarmies could have Earth-bound applications as well, like effective search and rescue operations or inspecting pipelines.
(via NASA, image via NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis)
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