This week I attended the demonstration of a low cost robot swarm platform that was unveiled at ALIFE XI, the first European conference on Artificial Life taking place at the University of Winchester.
The University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) has developed a new low cost platform for swarm robotics research which makes it possible to produce robots for only £24 each.
To bring down the cost of producing a swarm of robots for a typical cash-strapped research project the ECS research team has employed motors normally used to vibrate mobile phones. Because these motors are designed to be attached to circuit boards in the standard manufacturing process they remove the need for manual assembly of the robots and that helps reduce production costs.
By cannibalising the mobile phones the ECS team developed a platform of 25 robots capable of more than two hours of autonomy and with sufficient code capacity and processing power to run complex algorithms.
Necessity may be the mother of invention but one of the most striking features of each swarm robot was the sheer size of the battery that was used to power the tiny robots. Essentially the battery represented about half of the robot. When asked why such a large battery was used to power such a small robot the answer from the ECS engineer was: "We needed the largest battery we could get for the project because the robot has to run for an hour a so".
Well the ECS team may come up with a more elegant power solution in the future but they had at least designed the robot with power management in mind because it does charge itself as it moves around.
As I wandered home I had something of a Eureka moment. It went along the lines of:
mobile phone + robot + self-charge devices = elegance
That's when I realized the potential huge market for the ultimate personal mobile device - the phone robot.
After all everyone would love to have their own robot. And who doesn't want a really elegant slim mobile phone that has a battery that lasts for more than a day?
Well, the alternative could be a mobile phone on wheels I guess. Hands up - who wants the new iSegway?