Swarm robotics draws inspiration from biological studies of social insects like bees and ants. Although each insect follows a relatively simple set of rules, they collectively exhibit a high degree of organized, complex behavior. To communicate with one another, these insects use chemical substances known as pheromones, which they either release into the wind or leave at key locations in soil or vegetation. As workers encounter each of these pheromones, they learn the intended message and change their behaviors accordingly.
In swarm robotics, the goal is similar: to use simple robots that can coordinate much more complex functions at the level of the swarm. These swarms could be used for a variety of applications, such as mining, exploration, or even disaster rescue missions. However, one significant challenge has been replicating the communication that is so crucial for social insects. Because these robots may be deployed in remote areas without cellular signal or internet access, passing information quickly and reliably throughout the swarm is no easy task.
Seongin Na, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, may have come up with a way to overcome this challenge. They constructed a system to mimic the pheromones that social insects use. This system leverages a technology called COSΦ, which simulates the release of pheromones using light. Each swarm robot has light sensors, just like ants have antennas, to pick up on light produced as signals. Light can be released at different rates and densities to control how long and where the signal is present, which helps ensure the right robots receive the message at the right time. This system allows communication among the robots to be highly precise while remaining cost-effective.
The team’s next steps are to allow even greater complexity in their artificial pheromone system. Social insects can convey complex messages by combining multiple types of pheromones and altering their concentrations. To mimic this, the researchers might try to use different colors of light or even incorporate sound to expand the range of possible signals. This could ultimately allow the robots to communicate complexly enough to enable rescue missions or other challenging applications. Although this work is still nascent, it shows that with the right system, the whole can be much more than the sum of its parts.
Seongin Na, the first author of this research, is a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Manchester. Farshad Arvin, the senior author, is an assistant professor in the same department, and is the founding director of Swarm & Computation Intelligence Laboratory.
Managing Correspondent: Isabella Grabski
Press Article: “A system for swarm robotics applications inspired by pheromone communication in insects,” Tech Xplore.
Scientific Article: “Bio-inspired artificial pheromone system for swarm robotics applications,” Adaptive Behavior.
Image Credit: “Swarming” by menteblu61 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.