A unit of European researchers lead by scientists at the Institute of Process Control and Robotics in Karlsruhe, Germany is developing programmed ant-like robots proficient of collectively acting in a large group to achieve tasks beyond the capability of an individual robot. They contend that their creation could be used to examine Mars and make it ready for human occupancy. I-SWARM called robots can already act cohesively in combinations of 100, communicating directly with each other to deliver the small corrections and procedures essential for collective actions.

Each robot in operation is a 2 millimetre by 2 millimetres by the 1-millimetre stack of segments piled on top of three 0.2 millimetre long legs checked by a piezoelectric polymer actuator. The layers of elements include a small, customized application-specific combined circuit (ASIC), an onboard solar panel contributing power to the other systems, a communication unit promoting communication with other robots in the swarm, and a small GPS unit. Each robot also has a vibrating cantilever sensor (VCS) connected to simulate an extra leg. This sensor should be the first component of a robot to touch another robot or external restrictions, preventing undesired impacts.

The swarm is designed to perform without a central director or external connections to a controller system. The actions of individual segment robots are controlled through delicately designed swarm mathematics composed both to accomplish specific tasks within programmed situations and to provide positional information at any time. Besides, a certain number of cycles are dedicated to collision avoidance.

The purpose is to create two types of I-SWARM robots. Approximately 20% of the robots in a swarm will be pioneers, robots that actively search for intentions or barriers, and the rest will be worker robots, or robots who report to particular positions chosen by the pioneers. It may not be achievable to adequately manage this role detachment during initial deployments, in which case, all robots would fill both roles.

Current emphases of the I-SWARM robots can successfully perform five simple scenarios including even delivery of scouts throughout a specified area, even distribution of worker robots throughout a particularised region, exploration of a specified space in search of up to two particular geographic places (and several variations on the theme), moving operator robots to a specified location, and finding the quickest path between two specified points.

There are no modern plans to deploy I-SWARM robots on Mars (or anywhere else), but research and colonization are well accommodated to a collective capable of self-adjusting its legation parameters and specific instructions to deal with whatever circumstances are encountered. The level of repetition possible with such a swarm, especially the ability to readjust and carry on if one or more robots are disabled or destroyed, making them particularly suited for highly dangerous and unknown circumstances likely to be encountered on such missions.

TFOT has reported on other biomimetic robots including the GhostSwimmer aquatic spy carrier, a jumping robot motivated by grasshoppers, and a spy plane sparked by bats. Besides, TFOT has covered another cooperative robotics system consisting of voltage-controlled microelectromechanical microbots and another robotics system proficient of swarm management. Check out robots.net for more detail.