Swarm Robotics: How Bees Are Fueling the Future of IoT Innovation

April 30, 2020 - 7 minutes read

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With some sensors and an Internet connection, the Internet of Things (IoT) enables us to push, pull, and act upon data in a myriad of unprecedented ways. One relatively new IoT application is swarm robotics.

If this application doesn’t sound familiar, you may remember seeing it during Lady Gaga’s 2017 Super Bowl half-time show performance; hundreds of drones congregated to create a dazzling, starry backdrop in Houston‘s sky that evening. If that doesn’t ring a bell, then you may swarm robotics playing an integral role in the 2018 Winter Olympics; more than a thousand drones performed animations of skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports.

When robots work together instead of singularly, they introduce a greater potential for innovation in IoT.

What Is Swarm Robotics?

Swarm robotics is inspired by the relentless and efficient way that bees and ants work together to seamlessly accomplish a single objective. By grouping robots together in a swarm, they can perform tasks that would be impossible alone. These groups use large amounts of simple robots that are programmed to follow local rules. The members of the group mimic insect swarms: they’re almost identical to each other, there is a decentralized control system, and a lack of synchronicity.

In teamwork scenarios, communication, responsiveness, and feedback are all dynamic components of the swarm. In robotics, each connected device must understand how to detect and update behavior based on changes in other devices within the group.

With the IoT systems that we have in our smart homes, there is a centralized authority within each smart device that manages the device itself. None of these devices are truly connected, especially if they’re not bought from the same company. In swarm robotics, the robots are connected and communicating laterally without any higher authority giving instructions.

It’s certainly a different approach to IoT development — one that has brought brand new capabilities to this technological niche.

From Bees to Robots

Although bees, wasps, termites, and ants have sophisticated communication systems, it turns out that it’s not too difficult to mimic their behavior. We don’t need to know exactly how these social insects communicate to loosely replicate their efficiency.

Individuals in a colony don’t get informed about the colony’s overall status. They can give each other vital information, like if there is imminent danger or a nearby food or water source. This type of information is highly localized, but not over-reaching. And individuals, based on their co-workers’ behavior, will modify their own actions.

In reality, the colony’s overall status is distributed among certain individuals, called “agents”, that have systems to exchange this type of information. But without the entire colony’s cooperation, no one can get the job done alone.

Self-Organizing the Swarm

Self-organizing behaviors are developed by tiny changes in an individual’s behavior based on their neighbor’s behavior. This interaction will immediately move throughout the colony, like a wave. In self-organization, we see four different qualities working together seamlessly: randomness, positive feedback, negative feedback, and multiple interactions. These are largely accomplished without a single vocal instruction.

In robotics, we can apply these four features through robustness: work even if your neighbor fails or dies; flexible roles: change your role when and if needed; flexible decision-making: come up with different solutions for each task; and scalability: work efficiently no matter the size of the group.

The ideal swarm robotics system would have autonomous robots, which would be able to adapt instantly to changes in their surroundings. The ideal group would be: large, homogenous (or not too many different types of robots), not independent, and able to sense surroundings without knowledge of the overall status of the system.

The main characteristic of a group of self-organizing swarm robots is high redundancy, wherein each individual is doing exactly what the others are doing. Collectively, the individuals’ actions and interactions with their peers and surroundings add up to the overall swarm’s behavior.

Why Swarm Robotics Is Here to Stay

Although swarm robotics is one of the newest IoT applications, it’s going to enable us to create scalable, flexible, and robust systems across numerous industry verticals. The robots in these systems can handle a variety of surroundings and operating conditions. Individual robots are well distributed, self-organized, and dynamic in changing their behavior to adapt to the circumstances.

They do all of this without needing to know a single piece of information about the overall goal or strategy of the swarm. When it comes time to swap out individuals, there’s no downtime because the individuals are already programmed to take cues from their neighbor, rather than a managing entity. No one individual has a predefined role to fit into, giving it 100% power to focus on the one task to be done.

With swarm robotics, our IoT systems can adapt instantly to the failure of a component or neighbor robot without causing the entire system to crash and fail. And this is the true value of swarm robotics.

If you’re an IoT developer without a foundation in swarm robotics, be sure to take some time to learn more about it. The future of IoT is forever going to be changed once swarm robotics becomes more mainstream, and the time to jump in is now!

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