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Robotic Swarms

James Long Island, New York native James McLurkin loved working with Legos, models, and bicycles as child. But his tinkering went beyond mere child's play. Soon he was assembling parts and creating new toys from objects he found around the house. As a teenager he was inspired to build his first robot, "Rover," which he completed during his sophomore year in high school. By the time he finished high school he had created three robots on his own.

McLurkin was admitted to MIT, where he pursued a degree in electrical engineering. As a student there in 1991, he began working in the university's Artificial Intelligence Lab, where he first began developing his idea for "Robot Ants." These tiny machines (one inch or less per side) would each house internal computers and motors, with sensors that would allow them to detect objects in their paths that they could pick up or avoid. Each robot would also have an internal communication system using infrared emitters. These characteristics would give the robots "intelligence"—theoretically they would be able to work together to play games and accomplish tasks.

McLurkin, who believes that the greatest inspiration comes from observing nature, studied the behavior of real ants in ant colonies as a basis for his programming. He would keep "ant farms" on his desk at school and watch how the creatures worked together. He examined the ways in which the insects structured their workloads so they could succeed even when some members of the group were no longer able to perform.

McLurkin left MIT after receiving his B.S. in Electrical Engineering and pursued graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Next he returned to MIT to pursue his PhD in Computer Science, all the while continuing to work on his robot colonies. As part of his doctoral research, McLurkin is developing algorithms and techniques for programming "swarms" of autonomous robots, which would be programmed to mimic the behavior of bees, including their abilities to cluster, disperse, follow and orbit.

McLurkin believes much can be learned by studying the complexities of bee societies, which employ an efficient system of communication that allows the bees to accomplish individual tasks that support the collective goal of the group. McLurkin's ultimate goal is to construct thousands of swarm robots that would have the ability to take on complex tasks in difficult environments, such as searching for land mines, rummaging through earthquake rubble, exploring distant planets, even identifying and containing chemicals. Serving as a Lead Scientist at iRobot in Somerville, MA., since 1999, he has furthered his goal by leading a research team in building over 100 small robots (less than five inches long) that could communicate with one another and compute their relative positions. In addition, for a class project in 2002, McLurkin designed the "Swarm Orchestra," a group of up to 30 robots playing music together, spatially organized so that robots with like instruments are centrally located.

McLurkin teaches college prep courses, guest lectures around the country, and co-authored "Tomorrow's Surgery: Micromotors and Microrobots for Minimally Invasive Procedures." He also spent several years as a consultant for companies such as Walt Disney Imagineering and for SensAble Technologies. In 2003, he was awarded the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. McLurkin expects to complete his Ph.D. in Computer Science in 2006.

[May 2003]

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