The Kilobot Project
A Thousand (2^10) Robot Swarm for Programmable Collective Behaviors
In nature, vast groups of individual elements can
cooperate and assemble to create highly complex global behavior
through local interactions -- from multicellular organisms to complex
animal structures such as army ants bivouacs and flocks of birds.
In the field of robotics, researchers use inspiration
from collective intelligence in nature to create artificial systems
with capabilities observed in natural swarms. Researchers have
designed tiny robots, inspired by ants, bees, and cells, envisioned to
work together in large swarms or as programmable materials.
Nevertheless, there still exists a substantial gap between the
conceptual designs and the realized systems. Creating engineered
systems with similar abilities poses challenges in
the design of both algorithms and physical systems that can operate at
There is a vast body of work on algorithms meant to control
collectives of hundreds or even thousands of robots, however, for
reasons of cost, time, or complexity, they are validated in simulation
only, or on a group of a few 10s of robots.
The Kilobot swarm is a thousand-robot swarm*
designed to allow one to program and experiment with collective
behaviors in large-scale autonomous swarms.
Each robot has the
basic capabilities required for an autonomous swarm robot
(programmable controller, basic locomotion, and local communication),
but is made with low-cost parts and is mostly assembled by an
automated process. In addition, the system design allows a single user
to easily and scalably operate a large Kilobot collective, such as
"hands-off" programming, powering on, and charging all robots. Our goal is to make experimental research on collective
behaviors possible, and widely accessible and to enable deeper
understanding and new algorithmic insights into robustness,
scalability, self-organization, and emergence in collectives of
* 1024 to be exact but its hard to count them!
We are now using the Kilobot swarm to investigate
collective "artificial" intelligence (e.g. sync, collective
transport, self-assembly) as well as to explore new theories that link
minimal individual capabilities to acheivable swarm behaviors. Most
recently we conducted our first full thousand robot experiments
(Science, Aug 2014). Just as trillions of individual cells can
assemble into an organism, we demonstrated how a
self-organizing swarm of a thousand robots can self-assemble
into global shapes based on simple behaviors performed en masse. In
the process, we developed new techniques to deal with the unexpected
variability, physical effects, and rare errors that emerged at this
scale. We are continuing this effort with a new project to do a systematic 1000 robot experiment study of many existing
complex systems algorithms, both engineered and
nature-inspired, to understand generalizable principles in collective
The Kilobot Swarm (and cooperative decentralized
robots more generally) was chosen by Science Magazine as one of the Top
10 breakthroughs for 2014, and was also highlighted in Nature's
magazine's top 10. The Kilobot also won first place in the 2012 African
Robotics Network $10 Robot Design Challenge, to develop a low-cost
robot for education in developing countries. The Kilobot hardware and
software design is available open-source for
non-commercial use, and for purchase through K-Team Corp. See below for more
details; both robotics and biology groups now own their own kilobot
Programmable Self-Assembly in a Thousand-Robot Swarm
Michael Rubenstein, Alejandro Cornejo, Radhika Nagpal
Science, Vol 345, no 6198, 15 Aug 2014
Free access links: see the
Collective Transport of Complex Objects by Simple Robots: Theory and Experiments
Rubenstein, Cabrera, Werfel, Habibi, McLurkin, Nagpal
Intl. Conf. on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (AAMAS), May 2013.
Massive Uniform Manipulation:
Controlling Large Populations of Simple Robots With a Common Input Signal
Aaron Becker, Golnaz Habibi, Justin Werfel, Michael Rubenstein, James McLurkin
IEEE/RSJ Intl. Conf. on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), Nov 2013.
Kilobot: A Low Cost Scalable Robot System for Collective Behaviors
Michael Rubenstein, Christian Ahler, Radhika Nagpal
IEEE Intl. Conf on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2012.
(longer but older tech report, 2011)
"Building 1,000 robots is hard", McLurkin said. "Getting 1,000
robots to work together reliably is, how they’d say it in Boston?
The Kilobot Project is published in
Science: Lots of media coverage!
Science: Fish gotta school, birds gotta flock, and robots, it seems, gotta swarm.
Boston Globe: Tiny robots ‘swarm’ into shape.
National Geographic: A thousand cooperative self-organising robots.
NPR: All Things Considered, a podcast interview with Michael Rubenstein
Ars Technica (by Sabine Haeurt!),
SEAS/Wyss Press release,
The Telegraph (India)
Awards and Events
AFRON Challenge Winner (Wired Sep 2012)
Wyss and K-Team License
Press Release (Nov 2011)
Rise of the Swarm, Communications of the ACM, 2013.
Article (Kilobots are leaving the nest), 2011
Slashdot Article (Nov 2011)
Inside NOVA Blog (Adventures in Swarm Robotics), 2011
Spectrum blog article (June 2011).
The Kilobot hardware and software design is
available open-source for non-commercial use,
and you can also purchase pre-made Kilobots from K-Team Corp. We have also recently
developed Kilobotics: a new
programming environment with tutorials to make it easy to get started
programming kilobots. Several groups now own their own kilobot swarms,
such as Roderich Gross's group at Univ. of Sheffeild (that now has
their own 900 robot swarm!), Sabine Hauert's group at Bristol
University, and Wendell Lim's group at UCSF's Center for Systems
Purchase some from K-Team:
K-Team Corp makes Kilobots!
K-team sells groups of robots, controllers, and
charging stations - picture on the right is courtesy of Sabine
Hauert. Several interdisciplinary groups are starting to use kilobots
to test and teach about collective behaviors.. The Kilobots have
simple capabilities and costs (10 Kilobots ~ 1 E-puck) aimed at
enabling swarm intelligence research. Contact K-team to purchase your
Build some yourself:
If you would like to build your own Kilobots, all the
software and hardware details are available under a Creative Commons
attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
license. The documents can be found here. The
design is fairly simple for any lab that is used to getting
electronics made, and this is a great and affordable option if you
plan to make a large number of robots (We estimate approximately
$20/robot for thousand, upto $50/robot for a hundred). If you decide
to make your own robots, feel free to contact Mike Rubenstein to let
him know and if you need help.
Kilobots use a standard microcontroller (Atmel) and its programming
environment, and the distribution above contains the bootloader
program, libraries, and some sample programs. But we are also now
developing a new online programming environment www.kilobotics.com, that hosts the
compilation environment online and interfaces with dropbox to make the
process of developing Kilobot programs more easily portable to
different operating systems. This system was developed by Alex
Cornejo. We have also developed a set of labs/tutorials with sample
programs, that were used as part of an NSF funded workshop "Collective
Robotics for Life Scientists".
What can Kilobots do:
We have several narrated introduction movies
to show the capabilities of individual robots, how we program and
control them, and some sample collective behaviors. Take a look at
these, and at other movies on our kilobot youtube channel, to get an
introduction to the Kilobot system.
Features of a Kilobot Robot and how thy can be controlled in a group
Capabilities: communication, distance sensing, locomotion, computation.
Kilobot collective (<30 robots) demonstrating popular collective behaviors
Fish gotta school, Birds
gotta flock, and
Robots, it seems, gotta swarm.