FOCUS

Video—Roach-like Robots Act Collectively

Physics 11, 45
A collection of simple, self-propelled robots in a flexible and mobile corral can pull the whole group through a narrow space between walls.
A. Deblais et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. (2018)
Robot army. Collections of small, simple bots may someday perform useful tasks like exploration, so researchers want to learn about their basic principles of operation. (See videos below.)

Swarms of insects or populations of microbes can produce surprisingly coordinated phenomena, even though each individual operates with very simple rules. Hamid Kellay of the University of Bordeaux in France and his colleagues have demonstrated similar behavior in roach-like, battery-powered robots that skitter around randomly inside a corral. Previous researchers have also observed self-propelled swarmers in enclosed regions, but Kellay's team documented new forms of collective motion using movable corrals. The ultimate aim of this body of research is to produce small, simple robots that team up for a variety of tasks, such as self-assembly or exploration.

A. Deblais et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. (2018)
Roach-bots in a fixed corral segregate into two populations: one that buzzes around like a gas and another that clusters along the boundary, but individuals continually switch between the two.

The roach-bots used by Kellay and colleagues are commercial toys a few centimeters long that move at speeds of around 30 centimeters per second by vibrating on top of stiff, angled legs. The team showed that when a small number of bots is corralled, they bounce around like a 2D gas of molecules. But above a critical number (which depended on several parameters), some fraction of the bots line up in one or more tight clusters along the corral boundary (see first video). The gas and cluster populations remain in equilibrium, with members of each population continually being exchanged. The researchers also found that the unified pushing of the cluster bots could drive collective motion. By selecting a corral that was both flexible and mobile, they showed that the robot army could push its enclosure smoothly through a narrow aperture or roll it around an obstacle (see second and third videos).

A. Deblais et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. (2018)
In a mobile corral, the bots can collectively drive their enclosure forward and push it through a small hole.
A. Deblais et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. (2018)
The bots can also roll their corral around a curved surface.

This research is published in Physical Review Letters.

–David Ehrenstein

David Ehrenstein is the Focus Editor for Physics.

More Information

  • 2013 video about Harvard research with similar robots in fixed corrals.


Subject Areas

Soft Matter

Related Articles

Unjammed Emulsions Collapse to Liquids
Soft Matter

Unjammed Emulsions Collapse to Liquids

An emulsion’s rigidity disappears when the droplets’ random thermal motion overcomes the confining pressure that binds them. Read More »

Weightless Particles Prove Granular Gas Theory
Soft Matter

Weightless Particles Prove Granular Gas Theory

Experiments in near-zero gravity establish the validity of the fundamental theory of granular gases. Read More »

Finding a “Curveball” Equivalent for Microscopic Particles
Fluid Dynamics

Finding a “Curveball” Equivalent for Microscopic Particles

A small charged particle suspended in an electrolyte can swerve like a spinning baseball when exposed to a strong enough electric field. Read More »

More Articles