Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants swarms of modular robotic boats to form structures on water. The agency is funding researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who are developing a small fleet of robot boats that can come together to form larger structures as needed. Each robot is outfitted with four separate motors and propellers so they’re highly maneuverable.
The researcher team led by University of Pennsylvania engineering Professor Mark Yim, built over 100 miniature shipping container boats out of laser-cut black plastic, which looks like large shoe boxes. The containers are named after a chemical element and are controlled by Gumstix computers, which give directions to the boats on where to go.
Modular robots are machines made up of modules that can function alone or can be configured for a specific task. These types of robots are made up of identical active components that can be arranged to form numerous configurations—from snake to humanoid to centipede shapes. The systems can also self-reconfigure, depending on the called-upon task.
Yim and his students have written and manipulated a code to get the boats to perform their tasks.
DARPA wants them eventually to scale modular robots up to the size of shipping containers so they could be summoned to form usable structures like bridges, floating helipads, and even emergency coastal airports. It’s an ideal solution for areas dealing with a natural disaster.
According to DARPA, “The vision is to enable humanitarian assistance and disaster relief over broad coastal areas without dependence on local infrastructure, using unmodified commercial containerships, thus freeing military ships to carry out other military missions.”