Emerging Technologies Series II: Swarm Technologies

This article also appears on Lokvani

One modeling technology, that has attracted a lot of buzz of late, (excuse the pun) is Swarming or Swarm Technologies. Scientist and researchers have been baffled by the efficiency of a swarm of bees working as a group to fetch nectar from flowers to their hives. Each worker bee in the swarm ‘works independently for the collective cause’ of gathering nectar. This gathering phenomenon is now being extensively studied in swarms of bees, flocks of birds, herds of animals and schools of fish.

Swarm Technology attempts to mimic this ‘gathering-of- individuals’ functionality in nature. The key to Swarming is that there is no centralized control. Each entity in the swarm, referred to as an Agent works as an autonomous unit doing its own task.

Scientists and researchers have been impressed with the non-linear, unpredictable nature of swarms. The most fascinating part of this is that individual agents with simple behaviors combine to produce complex, yet organized group behavior.

This principle of ‘Swarming’ can be applied to several fields. Consider this. Even groups of human beings can work as independent individuals in to coordinate instantly and without a central authority to delegate work and perform independent tasks to accomplish a common objective. With the synthesis of the Internet and cell phones, individuals can coordinate efforts to share knowledge and ideas in a decentralized network. Howard Rheingold, a pioneer of virtual communities is writing a book on this swarming phenomenon among people, which he believes will reshape society.

Here are Technological applications and proposals of Swarms that are currently being pursued.

1. In the military, researchers have been working on the deployment of a few thousand cheap robots that can work on operations such as land mine disposal or seizing control of a building under the control of the enemy. Imagine several Rambos, Segals or Neos swarming a building under siege!

2. NASA Researchers are now working on micro ‘nanobots’ which have ‘shape shifting functionality and can morph into land rovers, antennas or other devices

3. Swarm-bots was a project that is sponsored by the Future and Emerging Technologies program. It lasted 42 months. A study was made with S-Bots, mobile robots that could connect and disconnect to each other. A lot of uses of swarms were studied here including all terrain navigation for space exploration and rescue operations. Other objectives were to study the cooperative transport of objects of different sizes and ‘hole avoidance’. Another study was to study independent robots with that work together to produce a single coherent behavior.

4. The University of Wyoming is using swarm technology to develop terrorist defence robots that can detect and diffuse chemical targets.

5. DARPA has invested in a project that will deploy a large number of military robots that will mimic insect behavior.

Swarm technologies are also being used in software . One interesting offshoot of using Swarms in software is Behavior Animation. The 1992 Tim Burton film ‘Batman Returns’ showed computer simulated bat and penguin swarms that used the swarm model .

One problem with swarm is that its complex nature makes it hard for users, programmers and people to get used to it. That is one reason that Swarm technologies have not yet gained mainstream popularity. Centers like the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico are trying to make swarm accessible to everyone, including a ‘scientific community that isn’t comfortable with Computers.

Swarming is a modeling technique that has potential, not just in Technology but also in diverse fields like economy and ecology.Is swarming just the flavor of the month or is it here to stay? Only time will tell. Herds, swarms, flocks and schools have existed in nature probably ever since life began. Mankind has finally discovered that there is much to learn from them.


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