Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
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
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