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Swarming..

taking our technology to an


Inevitable Independence!

Like several others who take delight in pondering upon the intricacies of nature, I too have
spent hours staring at rows of ants moving forwards and backwards like disciplined soldiers under
a Hitlerian regime. In the simple process of foraging food, several will often give up their lives in
traversing the varied terrain (which to the human eye is of course a mere two steps). But there is a
larger picture here. No single ant is independently responsible for the survival, growth and
sustenance of the colony. Therefore, a single loss hardly ever matters! Emulate this in human
society? NO! But this peculiar movement and functioning of ants in huge numbers in their daily
activities in itself was among the phenomena enough to inspire drastic research in a field called
Swarm Intelligence! One would be unwise to deny that the entire human race is meant to swarm
towards progress, else lies ahead a swamp of deregulation. Why naturalists like Thoreau also end up
being transcendentalists is because they realize that imposed governance is for those who cannot
govern themselves within and without. That is the subtle underlining of swarming!

What is Swarming? Its the behavior/tendency of actions of a large no. of individuals as a


whole, given certain specific and basic rules. We observe swarming every day. And most of it (as
always in Science) in Nature! Watched those Discovery footages of Schools of Fish moving in unison
in huge groups, and suddenly changing direction together? Observed a colony of Bats fly out of a
cave creating uncanny wavy patterns across the sky? Yes, indeed all of this has, or at least seems to
have meaning and purpose. Whether it is for protection, defence, offence, or just for the aesthetic
value in it (though unlikely), swarming has inspired significant developments in the field of
Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

When emulated in a System, consisting of multiple individual units, the work to be carried
out is given the priority, and not the units doing the work. This decentralizing of control is
significant. No single computer is required to monitor and control all the units in the group. Instead,
a single unit need only analyse the behavior of the units present immediately close to it, and take
decisions about the work to be done accordingly. In the unfortunate event of failure of some units,
the work of the system as a whole is not compromised.
True, research in this field is still nascent and has a long way to go. But we have indeed
crossed commendable milestones. By September 2011, Harvard had developed KiloBot, a group of
about 1024 three centimeter tall robots capable of independently arranging themselves into
complex shapes given the initial goal, without any specific algorithm to achieve the same, i.e. the
final shape had no one-to-one mapping with the bots present in each location! In February 2012,
Vijay Kumar of the University of Pennsylvania displayed (in a TED talk) small quad-rotors that are
able to swarm, sense each other, and form ad hoc teams to achieve an intricate pre-defined task.
Even as you read this article, robots are being tested to be able to carry out complex tasks in large
groups. The myriad applications in this field only add fuel to the flame of a growing community of
engineers and scientists investing lab time on swarm robotics. As of now, mining, agricultural
foraging and rescue operations are projected as the prime applications of swarm robotics in the
future. Perchance the day is not far when miniature spider like robots can be deployed in disaster
zones to seek out life forms and signal emergency teams to correct locations for expeditious rescue
operations; perhaps not very different from the spider bots in Minority Report used to scan all
individuals in an entire area for ID matches to a criminal database! Which forces us to fix upon
another formidable issue the military applications of such Swarm Intelligence appropriated from
the bassinet of Nature and molded by humans into programmable/controllable technology!

Indeed, in October 2014, The Office of Naval Research (US Navy) released details of
CARACaS - Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, an installable kit which
has been used on Unmanned Sea Vessels which are able to work together as a swarm without
human intervention to intercept and deter enemy or suspect vessels in the high seas. Perhaps the
day is not far when fire triggers come under CARACaS control as well!

But all hope is not lost, for Good will Always Prevail over Evil, it is the Way! No matter how
much influence the politburo attempts to exert on the scientific community, independence in
research is ours to keep. Developments in Swarming are taking gigantic steps every day. When
combined with nano-robotics and microbotics, the scope, (as redundant as it may sound) for
Swarm Robotics is nearly endless. (Imagine navigable Antibiotics traversing the Human Body to
reach a target Organ!) The Greeks used to say, everything can be everything and everything can be
everything else. This is the projection of swarming into the re configurable nature of society, then be
it re configurable robots or the everlasting static of dependent yet independent change. The Future
is sure to be heavily influenced by the research and innovations in Swarming. We perhaps, as a
generation of Engineers may soon have a crucial and critical role to play in this framing of fortune
of our freakish species. What remain to be determined are the path, and the time to the Inevitable in
this regard!

- Vedant Prusty
10th February, 2015