Robots are undoubtedly getting smarter. But they’re at their smartest when they work as a team. Very soon, researchers will be able to study their every move in the very latest lab to be built at TU Delft: the Cyberzoo.

“To survive in this zoo, robots have to make their own decisions, such as how to go about finding new energy.”

So just imagine: you’ve sneaked into the Aeroplane Hall of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering (AE) at night with a cunning plan to show your friend your latest conquest, the F16. A bit like ‘Come and see my new moped’, but even better. As you creep furtively through the dark hall trying to stifle your giggles, you hear a noise ahead of you. You go to investigate, like two veritable Sherlocks. Behind a black gauze net, you see a swarm of six-legged beasts rambling around the floor, while a dozen giant dragonflies flutter happily above them. They aren’t at all threatening and simply move aside when you pass through their terrain. You gaze at each other in pure amazement. It’s like a zoo; a zoo inhabited by robots.


Tiny birdbrains

This sums up the dream of Chris Verhoeven, one of the three theme leaders in the TU Delft Robotics Institute, who is in charge of the theme ‘swarm robots’: “We used to think that intelligence could be best accomplished in one large robot. But we’re now moving towards the idea that a group of smaller, simpler robots is actually much smarter.” Verhoeven’s ideas are inspired by nature: bees, ants or fish working as a group are able to carry out much more complex tasks than when they work as individuals. A swarm of bees, for example, can locate all the flowers in an area covering 500 square kilometres. “Our swarm robots must also be able to perform at this level,” says Verhoeven, associate professor in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EEMCS), and part-time member of AE staff.

Verhoeven outlines his ideal vision. “We make sure that the robots stay in a group, without getting too close to each other, as if you’d joined them together with invisible elastic bands. If you send a swarm of these robots into a collapsed building, they will sift through every nook and cranny, constantly updating each other on their findings. A robot placed at the entrance will inform rescue workers if they find a victim. The robots can then shine lights along a path, leading the rescue workers to the exact spot,” he explains using a concrete example. “It doesn’t matter which robot finds the victim, as long as they operate as a group to complete the task in hand.” This is, however, still very much in the future.