Lemelson-MIT Program
Who We Are Awards Outreach News
Invention Dimension Search Site Map Contact Us

Press Releases


Using Natural Behavior to Advance Scientific Goals

CAMBRIDGE, MA (February 26, 2003) — The Lemelson-MIT Program announced today that Long Island, N.Y. native James McLurkin has been selected as the recipient of its ninth annual $30,000 MIT Student Prize for inventiveness. McLurkin, a 30-year-old MIT graduate student pursuing a degree in Computer Science, was selected by the judging panel for his initiative, creativity and extraordinary inventiveness.

McLurkin is a daring innovator who has helped to push the frontiers of microrobotics. He has invented the world's smallest self-contained autonomous robots, measuring a little over one inch per side, and is currently working on constructing the largest fleet of autonomous robots that have ever worked together to carry out cooperative, real-world tasks.

As part of his doctoral research, McLurkin is developing algorithms and techniques for programming 'swarms' of autonomous robots. The swarm robots are programmed to interact in ways that mimic the behavior of bees, such as their abilities to cluster, disperse, follow and orbit. By simulating the complex interactions of bee societies, McLurkin's robots are programmed to accomplish individual tasks that support the collective goal of the group.

"James is a clever and inspired inventor," said Rodney A. Brooks, Director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who has worked closely with McLurkin. In a letter of recommendation for the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, Brooks said, "In the future, the world will be full of teams of mobile robots and they will all trace their ancestry to those developed by James McLurkin while still a student at MIT. He is fully deserving of this prestigious award."

Fascinated with the process of invention since the age of seven, McLurkin spent much of his childhood reconstructing and enhancing toys and electronic devices. Before he graduated from high school, McLurkin already had programmed his own video games, dismantled and rebuilt parts of his BMX™ bicycle, assembled a customized computer, and designed and built two robots. Influenced by his parents' love of nature, McLurkin also began to develop a keen interest in exploring and learning from the principles of nature. Now, an aspiring world-class inventor, McLurkin seeks to apply his engineering prowess and love of nature to answer questions like, "How do you get 20,000 robots to detect land mines?"

top of page

Robotic Ants
A firm believer that microrobotics should begin with the study of natural phenomena, McLurkin decided to focus his MIT undergraduate thesis project on simulating the behavior of an ant colony using twelve cubic-inch robots. While working on the project, he stored a large container of ants on his desk to study the way they interact, communicate and perform tasks. McLurkin programmed his robotic 'ants' to respond to their environment, enabling them to hunt for food, pass messages to one another, and even play tag. "Understanding nature is the key to unlocking the secrets of intelligence," McLurkin states.

Swarm Robots
Recognizing the enormous potential in tasks his robots could accomplish if they could self-organize, McLurkin later expanded his research to focus on developing distributed computing techniques that enable the 'swarms' of robots to act as a group as well as individually. Swarm robots are networked to travel in a fleet. Once a discovery is made by a robot, that robot will signal the group. The swarm can then unite around the discovery and set forth to accomplish the task it was programmed to achieve.

As Lead Scientist at iRobot in Somerville, MA, he managed a research team that built more than 100 small robots equipped to communicate with each other, compute their relative positions and utilize touch-sensing for navigation. The swarm robots are four and a half inches per side, making them 125 times larger and immensely more powerful than his robotic ants. Now part of his doctoral thesis research, each robot has bump sensors, light sensors, a self-charger, a radio modem and an audio system. Eventually, they will be equipped with a food sensor, trail sensors and a camera.

For a class project in 2002, McLurkin designed the Swarm Orchestra, which is a group of 20-30 robots playing music together, spatially organized so that robots with like instruments are centrally located. By combining bee-like behaviors such as temporal synchronization and clumping them into groups, McLurkin's robots can play a variety of music.

McLurkin's ultimate goal is to construct thousands of swarm robots with enough smarts to take on intricate tasks in difficult environments, such as searching for land mines, rummaging through earthquake rubble or even exploring Mars.

top of page

Education is Key
In addition to his technical wizardry, McLurkin is dedicated to teaching teens the importance and significance of invention, while motivating them to get involved in the world of science. According to McLurkin, "It is important that teens truly understand how much fun and exciting inventing can be." Following his own advice, McLurkin teaches college-preparatory classes, including classes within the Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery Academy at MIT, with toys such as Lego™ bricks and model trains.

McLurkin earned his Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT and expects to complete his Ph.D. in Computer Science in 2006. Before returning to MIT for graduate school, he earned his Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

McLurkin's success with his earlier project, the microrobotic ants, is currently being showcased at the Museum of Science, Boston in Invention at Play, a traveling exhibit sponsored by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Invention at Play was developed by the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota and with support from The Lemelson Foundation and the National Science Foundation. For more information on Invention at Play, visit http://www.si.edu/lemelson/centerpieces/iap/

Click here for more information on James McLurkin.

About the Lemelson-MIT Program
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program's mission is to raise the stature of inventors and innovators and to foster invention and innovation among young people. It accomplishes this by celebrating inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards, including the world's largest for invention — the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by The Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno. For more information about the Lemelson-MIT Program, please visit its newly redesigned Web site at http://web.mit.edu/invent/

top of page



Inventory Newsletter