The Swarmanoid project is a cool twist on swarm robotics -- researchers use a heterogeneous swarm of robots to achieve distributed mobile manipulation. The swarm is comprised of three different robot varieties: Hand-Bots (manipulation and climbing), Foot-Bots (wheeled mobility and sensing), and Eye-Bots (quadrotors for recon and sensing). The latest video of Swarmanoid retrieving a book won the "Best Video Award" at the Artificial Intelligence Conference (AAAI 2011) in San Francisco just the other day. You can check out the robots and winning video below.
I would really like to know more about that video: assumptions, level of autonomy / scripting / teleoperation, etc. The swarm seems too capable -- it's hard enough to get a single robot to achieve that task. In any case, it's an interesting concept and the hardware looks pretty solid too (see below).
It seems like robot swarms (distributed systems and control) are becoming more-and-more popular -- from Georgia Tech's Khepera robots building a quadrotor landing pad, to ETH Zurich's distributed flight array (cooperative helicopter swarms). I have a hunch that this is more of a (personal) selection bias rather than a true shift in research trends. For example... researchers now have several low-cost and capable robot hardware platforms at their disposal (like the $300 Parrot AR.Drone quadrotor), so it is easier for them to build flashy demos that draw our attention. Or maybe I'm way off base... let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Anyway, here are the three Swarmanoid robot variants:
The Swarmanoid Hand-Bot has two grippers for manipulation and climbing, a Batman-like grappling hook with a rope that (magnetically) attaches to the ceiling to assist with climbing, and two ducted fans for rotational control when hanging from the rope. Hand-Bot is virtually immobile and sensorless; instead, it relies on several Swarmanoid Foot-Bots to move it around.
The Foot-Bot is responsible for ground-based sensing and mobility. It has a small gripper that can latch onto other Foot-Bots, Hand-Bots, or objects for cooperative mobility. For example, several Foot-Bots are required to move the Hand-Bot around. Foot-Bot has dual cameras (including one omni) and spinning 360-degree infrared ranging sensors.
The Swarmanoid Eye-Bot gives an aerial view of the environment for fast recon, and it's ceiling attachment device lets it perch for prolonged operation. Eye-Bot is a quadrotor (robot helicopter) with pan-tilt camera, infrared distance sensors, IMU, sonar, and magnetometer.
According to Swarmanoids.org, this project is a multi-national effort between several European research groups: IRIDIA (Belgium), IDSIA (Switzerland), EPFL-LSRO (Switzerland), EPFL-LIS (Switzerland), and CNR-ISTC (Italy). You can read more about this project at Swarmanoid.org.
[ Hat tip to Lorenzo Riano. ]