What is a robot swarm? It’s simply a collection of robots cooperating to accomplish a task. A swarm works together to do more than any individual could do by itself. However, the end capability isn’t capped by the “sum” of the individual robot capabilities. Synergy is possible in a robot swarm. Working together, the swarm can accomplish tasks that are completely beyond the design parameters of the individual robot!
Ex. swarm capability equals sum of individuals
Ex. swarm synergy
The field of robotics is advancing on many fronts. The more popular fronts right now include humanoid robots and military applications. However, the swarm model is the bleeding edge of robotics research. Swarm is the next huge leap that will revolutionize the field. Having difficulty imagining the implications of many simple units working together? Let this clip from Big Hero 6 help you out a bit.
More Creative Options…
Obviously, we aren’t expecting to see Hero’s micro-bot collective programming in the STEP robots…not, yet. We’ll still be relying heavily on human control of each of the individual robots in a team’s “swarm.” But, it is time to break out of the present limit that all the big robot competitions are putting on their students. You see, robot competitions follow a common model. Games are designed to have multiple objectives to keep things interesting. The objectives have various levels of difficulty and reward. There is always a significant time constraint. So, teams are pushed into a strategic decision of where to allocate limited resources (time in design/build, time during a match, and material resources available for the build). The teams that excel are those who manage to combine an agile platform, agile manipulators, and skilled driver. Competition “insiders” know that it is driver skill that ultimately differentiates the top robots. So, the real challenge comes down to an optimization problem, “build the most diverse manipulator possible that our drivers can master.” The industrial equivalent is the iPhone. As a commercial product, the iPhone is the most profitable ever. After a lot of learning, practice, and habit forming the iPhone can transform everyday life. But, for all its success and advanced technology, the iPhone doesn’t even come close to the combined success of the wheel, 4-pronged fork, butter knife, frying pan, and match stick. Individually, these low tech items aren’t very special. But, combined they can get me to the store and feed me dinner. Sure, I (and millions like me) occasionally use a smartphone to call for delivery. But, Billions use the low-tech option instead even while taking their smartphone along for the ride.
The difference between this crude analogy and the STEP swarm reality is, in STEP, the individuals in the swarm will be every bit as smart as the larger individuals in other competitions. We are all trying to teach our kids the value of teamwork. STEP swarms will put teamwork on display in every match.
More Impact and Access…
The dominant paradigm in robotics competition is one team, one robot. The competition organizers’ concern is primarily with entry cost “per team.” (By entry, we mean the cost associated with an entity being equipped with the relevant technology…not the cost to enter a competition). The cost to equip individuals to further explore technology, independently, rarely comes into play. Unless, of course, you are a commercial supplier of the technology. In which case, cost likely enters into every discussion (but not in the way that benefits the individual). STEP is strategically designed to minimize the entry point for each team AND for individuals to explore on their own. Let’s compare the individual entry point, the team entry point, and the classroom bundle for various systems:
Cost per Team (1)
Starter Kit for Individual
Bundle learning Kit for Classroom
First Robotics Competition
Vex – EDR
>$5000 (for 6 kits)
<$500 (for 10 kits)
(1) This includes costs for entry and costs for parts whether paid by the team or a competition sponsor
The premise is simple, lowering the cost per team will open the competition up to more teams. Additionally, making the classroom bundles more accessible means that more kids can actually get their hands on the technology in the classroom. In a 30 person classroom, how many hands can really be on a robot? Most importantly, using accessible technology that more individuals can afford means that kids can continue their robotics growth at home.
With the STEP model, more kids can nurture their robotics inspiration.