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The 1,000 swarm robots of the Kilobot Project at Harvard University

Tiny swarm robots could become first responders after earthquakes

It seems obvious now that in the event of an earthquake, tiny, swarm robots would be the most effective way of locating survivors in huge piles of rubble through which human emergency workers and first responders cannot make their way or even see.

So obvious that you wonder why they haven’t been developed and even deployed for that purpose already. Certainly the technology seems to be advanced enough – research into the area has been going at an accelerated pace for some time.

Looking at pictures of the collapsed building in Taiwan after the earthquake there on Saturday, there looks to be no way to go in for the emergency workers trying to rescue the survivors. The magnitude-7.6 quake is reported to have killed at least 41 people and more than 100 are said to be trapped in the rubble in that building alone.

The 1,000 swarm robots of the Kilobot Project at Harvard University
The 1,000 swarm robots of the Kilobot Project at Harvard University

Insects may not be the most cuddly creatures in the animal kingdom, and cockroaches have a special place in the part of our brain that computes disgust, but researchers at University of California Berkeley have created a cockroach-like robot that can prove very useful in times of earthquakes.

UC Berkeley’s prototype robot, which they’ve called Cram – or compressible robot with articulated mechanisms – can alter its shape and move through tiny spaces, according to a report on The Verge website.

Cockroaches are famous for, among many other things, having survived the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Japan, during World War 2. And the scientists who developed Cram – Kaushik Jayaram and Robert Full – say they reveal “nature’s secrets about design”.

Politics aside, tiny swarm robots could be programmed not only to locate survivors, but to supply them with food and water, as well as move small amounts of rubble that may be preventing the trapped survivors from breathing or moving.

A lot of people at one time or another have wondered how ants manage to organise themselves with such efficiency, knowing where to go and what to do, all in an apparently highly organised fashion, all in a large community of hundreds if not thousands.

Scientists who study these things say that the way ants organise themselves is by using pheromones, a chemical that the ants seem to be able to smell and use for guidance.

Now, scientists who study mechanical and computing things have developed tiny swarm robots that can also use pheromone-based communication methods, according to a report on the Guardian’s website.

The system is called COS-phi – short for communication system via pheromone – and was developed by a team at the University of Lincoln, UK. Fashad Arvin, PhD researcher at the School of Computer Science who led the team, says: “The system means that we can produce precise and high resolution trails… resulting in complex swarm behaviours, just as they do in the natural world.”

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