How might robotic engineers program a swarm of robots to accomplish tasks together based on self-organizing behaviors? Harvard research scientist Michael Rubenstein was working on that challenge when he designed Kilobots, a very large group of small robots that can flash lights, measure distances, detect neighbors, and move around… which sounds pretty simple until you put them in a group with specific instructions:

“The coolest thing we’ve done with them is shape formation,” says Rubenstein. “You can draw a shape in a computer and we have an algorithm to let each robot make its own decisions to form that shape.”

To make the robots form a “K” (for “kilobot”), Rubenstein places a few robots to “seed” a corner of the shape. He then essentially gives the rest of the swarm a map of the shape and a set of simple instructions: measure your distance to the corner, then follow the edge of the group one-by-one until you are either about to exit the shape or you bump into the previous robot.

Come back in 12 hours, and the thousand robot swarm has arranged itself into the letter K. And because these instructions don’t specify the exact movements of any individual, the kilobots execute the same program a little bit differently every time.


It’s also a great project for thinking about emergent behavior and how groups of animals, and even cells, behave together. Be sure to read more details about the project at

From KQED and PBS Digital Studios, this is Deep Look‘s Can A Thousand Tiny Swarming Robots Outsmart Nature?

File under robots, biomimicry, and swarms.

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