The idea of creating autonomous robotic swarms is nothing new, a concept that's been demonstrated by GRASP Lab's quadrotors. What needs to happen now is for developers to push the technology forward and come up with practical applications for these cooperative bots. A good example is the new Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform — a fleet of programmable robots that could someday come to your rescue.
In conjunction with DARPA, TEMP was developed by the University of Pennsylvania's Vijay Kumar and Mark Yim. They recently put together a scale model of their aquatic system and tested it in a swimming pool. Eventually, the swarming boats will each occupy a space similar in size to a standard shipping container.
The modular boats are designed to work together to hook-up and form a desired shape, such as a floating platform. The TEMP system will also utilize rapidly deployable sealift, airlift, logistics, and medical care capabilities (some of which will also be robotic).
For it to work, Kumar and Yim had to figure out a way to get each robot to work smartly and autonomously — and without getting in the way of each other. For their experiment, they created a fleet of 100 individual robot boats, each one measuring about a foot-and-a-half in length.
Along with a set of algorithms, the team equipped each bot with a unique visual identifier that can be read by a camera (kind of like a QR code). With this system, each robot knows where it stands in relation to all the others. Once scaled up to real size, the boats will use a GPS to determine their precise location.
Each boat "knows" its physical proportions, along with its overarching goal — such as instructions for building a bridge. Once they get the greenlight, the collective bands together to finish the task. When they've shimmied themselves to the right place and orientation, they use a hook-and-tether system to connect themselves to each other. The technology to do this was developed by QinetQ NA (who will eventually make the full-sized boats).
"We give them a structure, and then each boat figures out where to go and in what sequence to go to make that structure," said Yim through a UPenn statement.
The ultimate point of the project, says DARPA, "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."
Moving forward, the developers will have to anticipate non-ideal real-world conditions, such as storms and choppy waters. Eventually, DARPA hopes to see the system applied to disaster recovery and delivering humanitarian aid.
It's not clear, however, if it'll ever be built. According to DARPA, "Due to cost constraints, an integrated demonstration of the complete TEMP system is not planned, but the core amphibious and air vehicle technologies are being considered for continued development to support a variety of military missions."