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Swarm Intelligence: Introduction & Applications

Swarms operate with a greater intelligence than any individual member. Image Credit: Neels Castillon

Swarms operate with a greater intelligence than any individual member. Image Credit: Neels Castillon

Swarm Intelligence is a new subset of Artificial Intelligence (AI) designed to manage a group of connected machines. We are now entering the age of the Intelligent machines, also called the Internet of Things (IoT), where more and devices are being connected every day. Swarm intelligence is quickly emerging as a way this connectivity can be harnessed and put to good use.

Swarm intelligence (as the name suggests) comes from mimicking nature. Swarms of social insects, such as ants and bees, operate using a collective intelligence that is greater than any individual member of the swarm. Swarms are therefore highly effective problem-solving groups that can easily deal with the loss of individual members while still completing the task at hand -- a capability that is very desirable for a huge number of applications.  Today this concept is being applied in concert with machine learning and distributed computing systems. The result is a group of connected machines that can communicate, coordinate, learn and adapt to reach a specific goal. Check out the video below and its subsequent follow up videos to see how swarm intelligence is applied to a group of drones. 

 Artificial Swarm Intelligence in Nano Robotic Systems. 

The next obvious questions is what can we do with swarms?  Here are a few recent examples of how swarm intelligence is being applied in different technology sectors. 

1. Military Applications

Military applications of swarm intelligence are obvious. The Navy recently announced a program that applies swarm intelligence to autonomous watercraft. The underlying program running the swarms is called Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing or CARACaS. These boat swarms have now demonstrated the ability to escort high value targets and surround potential enemy targets. In the near future, small low-cost swarms of watercraft will engage enemy targets without endangering human lives in the process. These same concepts are already being applied to unmanned aerial drones.  The US military has unveiled plans to have swarms of autonomous drones flown into combat zones by an unmanned tele-operated mothership.  Once released the drones will use swarm intelligence to carry out specific missions as a group without human intervention. 

Unmanned Naval watercraft operating under swarm intelligence programming.  Image Credit: DefenseTech.org

Unmanned Naval watercraft operating under swarm intelligence programming.  Image Credit: DefenseTech.org

2. Space Exploration 

See those little grooves?  Yup...robot swarms! Image Credit: Planetary Resources

See those little grooves?  Yup...robot swarms! Image Credit: Planetary Resources

Swarm intelligence is becoming a very common subject in the commercial space economy. There are incredibly high costs associated with doing just about anything in space, and swarms may hold the solution to this problem. We will take asteroid mining as the example. Several firms have emerged in the past few years with the stated goal of enabling asteroid mining. Space mining, while technically feasible, is often dismissed due to the incredibly large cost associated with mining something very far away with large, expensive robotic craft.  However, if we can lower the cost of manufacturing spacecraft through 3D printing, economies of scale, and private innovation, things begin to change. Skybox, PlanetLabs and Planetary Resources are already establishing a new paradigm in low cost spacecraft manufacturing and deployment. Once we have access to low cost spacecraft, we can apply swarm intelligence to make difficult tasks, such as asteroid mining, much more feasible and successful. Swarms of robotic spacecraft can encircle an asteroid deep in space and process raw materials and water for delivery back to Earth orbit. Even if several spacecraft are lost, the mission can still be completed.  Once these resources are delivered back to Earth orbit, swarms of 3D printing spiders working as a collective group can begin constructing massive orbital structures at a fraction of the cost compared to launching them from Earth. 

Robotic swarms of 3D printing spiders can construct massive structures in Earth orbit.  Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

Robotic swarms of 3D printing spiders can construct massive structures in Earth orbit.  Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

3. Biotechnology

The final swarm application I will share with you is a small one. Very small. Nanoparticles are bioengineered particles that can be injected into the body and operate as a system to do things drug treatments cannot. The primary problem with all of our current cancer treatments is most procedures target healthy cells in addition to tumors, causing a whole host of side effects. Nanoparticles by comparison, are custom designed to accumulate ONLY in tumors, while avoiding healthy tissue.  Nanoparticles can be designed to move, sense, and interact with their environment, just like robots.  In medicine, we call this embodied intelligence. The challenge thus far has been figuring out how to properly "program" this embodied intelligence to ensure it produces the desired outcome. Enter swarm intelligence. Swarms are very effective when a group of individual elements (nanoparticles in this case) begin reacting as a group to local information.  Swarm intelligence is emerging as the key to which will unlock the true potential of these tiny helpers. Researchers are now reaching out to the gaming community in an effort to crowdsource the proper programming for swarm of nanoparticles.   

Nanoparticles, managed by swarm intelligence, may hold the key to targeting tumors without damage to healthy cells.  Image Credit: BioTechGuru

Nanoparticles, managed by swarm intelligence, may hold the key to targeting tumors without damage to healthy cells.  Image Credit: BioTechGuru

So the next time you see a flock of birds, bats or ants, take a moment to reflect on how powerful and impressive nature is. Mankind is unlocking new possibilities in robotics and AI by simply attempting to copy Mother Nature. Swarm intelligence is a powerful force that is opening up new possibilities across the technological spectrum each day.