Hive-Minded Robots Now in the Water

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You figured you could elude Skynet by jumping into the water, right? Robots surely wouldn’t come after us in there, because their circuits would short out if they got wet. Think again! The University of Pennsylvania has deliberately created robotic boats and put them in water with the scheme of one day making bigger floating robots and putting them in bigger bodies of water. Land, sky, sea — is nowhere safe?

It turns out the plan for these seafaring robots is not so devious. We shouldn’t have been worried. Professor Mark Yim and his students have far more productive ideas in mind. By constructing little — and let’s face it, adorable — boat robots that communicate with one another and arrange themselves into specified, modular configurations, they form the model for much larger, shipping container-sized floating robots. All right, but why? And why is DARPA sponsoring it?

One of the primary reasons is disaster relief. Imagine a tsunami hits a port city or torrential rains wash away the only bridge to a town in peril. Constructing a new bridge, anchored on land, is going to take forever. But what if you drop into the now-emptied water a fleet of container-bots specially designed for this purpose? They assemble themselves into a sizable, buoyant bridge, one strong enough to support the weight of rescue vehicles but smart enough to account for the flow of the river or the surging waves of the ocean? It’ll take time to go from prototype to the real thing, but these are some excellent first steps.

So maybe it’s a good idea to keep building robots. Maybe Skynet will be our friend.

(Via IEEE Spectrum, image courtesy of the Daily Pennsylvanian)

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