Do you think that you'll never be able to afford a robot of your own that isn't a toy? Well, if you can get Swiss robot-maker K-Team Corporation to sell you one, chances are you can easily afford a Kilobot - perhaps even a whole bunch of them. Designed and first built by Harvard University's Self-Organizing Systems Research Group, the three-legged robots aren't much larger than the 3.4-volt button cell batteries that power them, and move by vibrating across smooth, flat surfaces. They were created to study robotic swarming behavior, with the intention that tens, hundreds or even thousands of them could be used simultaneously in one experiment. Harvard has just announced that it has licensed the Kilobot technology to K-Team, which will commercially manufacture the robots so that other groups and institutions can purchase them for their own research.
Along with its lithium-ion battery and rigid legs, each Kilobot incorporates an LED bulb, two motors (which vibrate the legs), a wide-angle infrared transceiver, and a microcontroller. An unlimited number of the little guys can be programmed via a computer-linked overhead infrared controller in under 40 seconds, and each have the ability to act autonomously, based on the parameters of that programming.
The Harvard researchers have so far gotten cooperating groups of Kilobots to do things such as foraging for "food," following a leader, dispersing from one another, and synchronizing the blinking of their built-in LEDs. While a bunch of little robots doing these things might not seem to have huge applications in the real world, the lessons learned from such research could lead to groups of more practical robots performing duties such as the exploration of hostile environments, search and rescue missions, environmental monitoring, or hazardous material clean-ups.
That kind of research would be quite costly to conduct using larger, more complex robots, and could be inaccurate just using computer models.
There's no word yet on whether or not K-Team will sell individual Kilobots to ordinary folks like us (although just buying one would be sort of like owning one ant), or how much they will cost. According to Harvard, however, each of the initial prototypes consisted of about US$14 in parts.
UPDATE (Nov.29/11): K-Team informs us that prices for the Kilobots start at 1,100 Swiss Francs (US$1,198) for a pack of ten. A controller and charger are also required, and are available through the company.
Here's a video overview of the Kilobot from Harvard's SSR Lab: