Synchronizing Humanoid Robot Swarms

Humanoid robots are being taught to synchronize their movements by MIT researchers who are learning from insects and bacteria. The key - quorum sensing.


(Synchronized humanoid robots at MIT)

[R]oboticists have been searching for a better form of synchronisation that is more robust to the various trials and tribulations that befall robotic dancers. Today, Patrick Bechon and Jean-Jacques Slotine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, reveal a new approach based on the biological phenomenon of quorum sensing.

Biologists have long puzzled over the ability of bacteria and social insects to sense not only the presence of compatriots but their number and to synchronise their behaviour.

It turns out that these creatures perform this synchronisation using a process called quorum sensing. This works by constantly releasing signalling molecules into the environment while at the same time measuring the local concentration of these molecules.

This concentration rises as more creatures join the local population and so is an effective measure of population density. When the concentration rises over some threshold level, it triggers a different behaviour such cell division, pathogen production and nest building.

Now Bechon and Slotine say a similar approach provides a robust way to synchronise humanoid robots. The ideal approach to synchronisation is for each robot to have access to every other robot's position. Instead, the quorum sensing approach gives, each robot access to a global variable such as the average position or average clock time. Each robot can also change this variable because it contributes to the average.

The multiple robot team in Isaac Asimov's 1944 story Catch That Rabbit were also able to synchronize their movements, taking their lead from the leader robot, Dave:

There was a marching formation now, and in their own dim body light, the rough-hewn walls of the mine tunnel swam past noiselessly, checkered with misty erratic blobs of shadow. They marched in unison, seven of them, with Dave at the head. They wheeled and turned in macabre simultaneity; and melted through changes of formation with the weird ease of chorus dancers in Lunar Bowl...

Via MIT's Technology Review.

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