Hundreds of tiny robots have been made to work as a team, inspired by the biological principles of self-organization.

The study: Researchers have managed to get swarms of 300 robots to self-organize without following a preset pattern. The only programming each coin-size robot received was some basic rules on how to communicate—via infrared—with its neighbors.

Inspiration: The robots were programmed to act like cells in a tissue. Those genetic rules mimic the system responsible for so-called Turing patterns in nature, such as a leopard’s spots.

What’s new: Of course, this isn’t the first artificial robot “swarm.” However, past swarms have had their final shape predefined by researchers. “What’s fascinating is there is no master plan; these shapes emerge as a result of simple interactions between the robots,” says Sabine Hauert from Bristol University’s robotics lab, who was part of the study. 

Early days: This is just a proof of concept (and the rather amorphous blobs the robots ended up in don’t look like much) but they're the first steps towards something rather exciting. “The swarms are adaptable, dynamic, and robust, so damage means robots can just re-swarm into new areas,” says James Sharpe, who led the project from Barcelona’s Institute of Science and Technology. The work was published in the journal Science Robotics today.

Potential applications: It isn’t too much of a stretch to see how thousands of tiny robots could help form shapes to explore a disaster environment after an earthquake, or perhaps sculpt themselves into a 3D structures such as a temporary bridge. However, there’s still a long way to go before we see such swarms outside the lab.