Feb 5, 2016 | By Benedict

Think the ocean is the last place you’d find a massive collection of 3D printed technology? Think again, because researchers from two Lisbon universities have developed a swarm of intelligent 3D printed aquatic surface robots for use in a real-world environment. These 3D printed robots could be deployed in their hundreds or even thousands and could be used for environmental monitoring, search and rescue, and maritime surveillance.

These swarms of 3D printed aquatic androids are not individually controlled, but react to other machines in a group, becoming more and more autonomous as they interact with one another. To develop this special robotic collectivity, researchers from the Institute of Telecommunications at University Institute of Lisbon and University of Lisbon looked to nature for inspiration. Evolutionary algorithms which mimic Darwinian evolution have been used to generate artificial intelligence in each 3D printed bot, a low-maintenance and technologically impressive substitute for the individual control of each device.

Each 3D printed droid is hooked up to an artificial neural network or “artificial brain” that allows the robots to act autonomously. The team responsible for their creation has already demonstrated the power of the swarm, with groups of up to ten machines used to perform tasks such as area monitoring, navigation to waypoint, aggregation, and dispersion.

Building a “swarm” of anything—let alone one of intelligent 3D printed water robots—may seem like an expensive task, but the Lisbon researchers have managed to keep costs at a minimum by using 3D printing and widely available off-the-shelf components. Each robot costs around €300 ($335) to build, with the hull made from CNC-machined polystyrene foam and fitted with 3D printed components. Just like sailors of yore, each robot is equipped with a compass, as well as more modern GPS technology, a Raspberry Pi 2 which houses its artificial brain, and Wi-Fi capability for communicating with its neighbors.

“Swarm robotics is a paradigm shift: we rely on many small, simple and inexpensive robots, instead of a single or a few large, complex and expensive robots”, said Dr. Anders Christensen, principal investigator on the project. “Controlling a large-scale swarm of robots cannot be done centrally. Each robot must decide for itself how to carry out the mission, and coordinate with its neighbors.”

The researchers are now working on the second generation of their cooperative swimming gizmos, which will be equipped with more advanced sensors and be suitable for long-haul operations. Swarms of aquatic robots such as those developed in Lisbon could be used to replace manned vessels for various maritime missions, especially those which put crew members in danger.

If all goes swimmingly with the second generation of 3D printed robots, our oceans could soon be densely populated with these clever little devices. A video demonstration of the swarm (below) has been nominated for the “Best Robot Video Award” at the AAAI video competition. A pre-print of the study is available to read on arXiv.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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