Learn Programming From Ants

Humans and insects think on a different scale, but entomologists study the behavior of these little organisms, so they’re not a complete mystery. There isn’t much intelligence in a single ant or a cubic millimeter of gray matter, but when they all start acting together, you get something greater than the sum of the parts. It is easy to fall into the trap of putting all the intelligence or programming into a single box since that’s how we function. Comparatively, itty-bitty brains, like microcontrollers and single-board computers are inexpensive and plentiful. Enter swarm mentality, and new tasks become possible.

[Kevin Hartnett] talks about a paper researching the simple rules which govern army ants who use their bodies as bridges when confronted with a gap in their path. Anyone with a ruler and a map can decide the shortest route between two places, but army ants perform this optimization from the ground, real-time, and with only a few neurons at their disposal. Two simple rules control bridge building behavior, and that might leave some space in the memory banks of some swarm robots.

A simpler example of swarm mentality could be robots which drive forward anytime they sense infrared waves from above. In this way, anyone watching the swarm could observe when an infrared light was present and where it was directed. You could do the same with inexpensive solar-powered toy cars, but we can already see visible light.

We’re not saying ants should be recruited to control robots, but we’re not objecting to the humane treatment of cyborg bugs either. We’ve been looking into swarm robots for a long time.

Thanks for the tip, [JRD].

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Hackaday Links: March 11, 2018

Guess what’ll be wrapping up in just two weeks? The Midwest RepRap Festival, the largest con for open source 3D printing in the world. MRRF is going down in Goshen, Indiana on March 23rd through March 25th. Tickets are free! If you’re looking for a hotel, I can speak from experience that the Best Western is good and close to the con, and I haven’t heard anything bad about the Holiday Inn Express.

Want to go to a convention with even weirder people? Somehow or another, a press release for Contact In The Desert, the largest UFO conference in the world, ended up in my inbox. It’s on the first weekend in June near Cochilla. Why is this significant? Because the greatest people-watching experience you’ll ever see, AlienCon 2018, is happening in Pasadena just two weeks later. The guy with the hair from Ancient Aliens will be at both events. Why are they having a UFO conference where military planes fly all the time? Wouldn’t it be better to rule out false positives?

The entirety of Silicon Valley tech culture is based upon the principle of flouting laws and regulations. We have reached a new high water mark. Swarm Technologies, a ‘stealth startup’ working on ‘Internet of Things’ satellites recently sent up four 0.25U cubesats on an ISRO flight. The satellites were deployed and are currently in orbit. This is somewhat remarkable, because the FCC, the government body responsible for regulating commercial satellites, dismissed Swarm’s application for launch on safety grounds. As reported by IEEE Spectrum, this is the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

The TRS-80 Model 100 was one of the first, best examples of a ‘notebook’ computer. It had a QWERTY keyboard, an LCD, and ran off a few AA batteries for 20 hours. It’s the perfect platform for a Raspberry Pi casemod, and now someone has finally done it. [thecodeman] stuffed a Pi into a broken model M100 and replaced the old LCD with a 7.8″ 400×1280 pixel display. The display is the interesting part here, and it comes from EarthLCD, part number earthlcd-7-4001280.

The Flite Test crew is famous for their foam board RC airplanes, but they have historically had some significantly more interesting builds. Can you fly a cinder block? Yep. Can you fly a microwave and have it pop popcorn? Yep. Their latest crazy project is a flying Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, the ubiquitous red and yellow toy car meant to fit a toddler. The wings are made out of cardboard, the motors — both of them — generate thirty pounds of thrust each, and you can weld with the batteries. Does it fly? Yes, until the wings collapsed and the Cozy Coupe plummeted to the ground. Watch the video, it’s a great demonstration of designing a plane to rotate off the ground.

Zooids — Swarm User Interface

What the heck is a Zooid? A Zooid is a small cylindrical robot, measuring 26 mm in diameter and 21 mm in height, weighting about 12g. Each robot is powered by a 100 mAh LiPo battery and uses motor driven wheels — and these things are snappy at a top speed of about 0.5m/s. Each Zooid is able to know if you touched it via capacitive touch sensing. It has wireless capabilities through an NRF24L01+ chip. So, what’s it for, you wonder…

zooids-swarm-robotics-thumbOne robot might not do much but the idea behind the Zooids is the introduction of swarm user interfaces, a new class of human-computer interfaces that involves multiple autonomous robots to handle both display and interaction. In a joint work between the Shape Lab at Stanford University (USA) and the Aviz team at Inria (France), researchers developed an open-source open-hardware platform for what they called “tabletop swarm interfaces”. The actual interface involves a swarm of Zooids, a radio base-station, a high-speed DLP structured light projector for optical tracking and a software framework for application development and control.

In the demonstration video we can see some examples of use of the Zooids. Could the resolution be measured as, erm, ZPI? Near the end of the demo we can see a new level of interactivity where the swarm quickly works together as a team and sort of fetch the user’s phone. Now, if they can be made to scour the house in search of our keys, that would be something…

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Drones, Swarms At War

Using drones in areas of conflict is not something new. As commercial drones get easily affordable, we see it all the time in the news, some soldier using a Parrot drone to scout ahead, above trenches or around buildings. That’s a new reality that soldiers have to get used to. It changes the battlefield, especially traditional ground warfare. There is also research in drone swarms, performing tasks in team for some time now. Some of them are really impressive.

And then there’s the U.S. Military Perdix drones. William Roper of the Department of Defense illustrate what exactly their capabilities are:

Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature. Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.

Did we mention they can be released in mid-flight by a F/A 18 Super Hornet? That’s no piece of cake for any drone but Perdix is able to withstand speeds of Mach 0.6 and temperatures of -10 °C during release. In the latest tests conducted, three jets released a massive swarm of 103 Perdix drones, which after deployment communicated with each other and went on a simulated surveillance mission.

The Department of Defense announced the successful Micro-Drone demonstration and presented a video:

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Raspberry Pi Hive Mind

Setting up a cluster of computers used to be a high-end trick used in big data centers and labs. After all, buying a bunch of, say, VAX computers runs into money pretty quickly (not even counting the operating expense). Today, though, most of us have a slew of Raspberry Pi computers.

Because the Pi runs Linux (or, at least, can run Linux), there are a wealth of tools out there for doing just about anything. The trick is figuring out how to install it. Clustering several Linux boxes isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does take a lot of work unless you use a special tool. One of those tools is Docker, particularly Docker Swarm Mode. [Alex Ellis] has a good video (see below) showing the details of a 28 CPU cluster.

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Swarm of Robot Boats Coming To An Ocean Near You Soon

Planning a hostile takeover of your local swimming pool? This might help: [Dr Anders Lyhne Christensen] sent us a note about his work at the BioMachines Lab of the Institute of Telecommunications in Portugal. They have been building a swarm of robot boats to experiment with autonomous swarms, with some excellent results.

In an autonomous swarm, each robot makes its own decisions and talks to its neighbors, and the combined behavior of the swarm produces an overall behavior, like ants in a nest. They’ve created swarms that can autonomously navigate, patrol an area or monitor the temperature in an area and return to base to report the results. In an excellent video, [Anders] outlines how they used computational evolution to create these behaviors, randomly mutating a neural net to find the best approach, which is then sent to the real boats.

Perhaps coolest of all: the whole project is open source, with the brains of each boat running on a Raspberry Pi, and a CNC milled foam hull with 3D printed component mounts. Each boat costs about 300 Euro (about $340), but you could reduce the cost a bit by salvaging components and once the less-expensive Pi Zero becomes obtainable. This project will no doubt be useful for many an evil genius who is sick of being splashed by the toughs at the local pool: a swarm of killer robots surrounding them would be an excellent way to keep them at bay.

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Dog Pod Grid one step closer to reality

What’s better than one amazingly acrobatic quadcopter? How about a swarm of acrobatic micro-quadcopters? It’s not a rhetorical question, but an experimental reality. A team at the University of Pennsylvania are showing off their latest round of hovering robots which can move in formation and alter their orientation as a swarm.

You may remember us salivating over the unbelievable stunts the team pulled off with a single ‘copter back in 2010. That device needed a sophisticated camera installation to give provide feedback, and this uses the same framework. But we don’t that detracts from the achievement; it’s simply a future hurdle for the project.

The video after the break shows some of the stunts the slew of whirring devices are capable of. Watching them move as a grid, and even landing simultaneously, we can’t help but think of the Dog Pod Grid from Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age. It was used as a protection system, keeping unwanted flying intruders out. Doesn’t sound so far-fetched any more, does it?

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