The team, working in the Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo), in the University's Faculty of Engineering, has programmed extremely simple robots that are able to form a dense cluster without the need for complex computation, in a similar way to how a swarm of bees or a flock of birds is able to carry out tasks collectively.
A group of 40 robots has been programmed to perform the clustering task and the researchers have shown, using computer simulations, that this could be expanded to include thousands of robots.
Each robot uses just one sensor that tells them whether or not they can 'see' another robot in front of them. Based on whether or not they can see another robot, they will either rotate on the spot, or move around in a circle until they can see one.
In this way they are able to gradually form and maintain a cluster formation. The system's ingenuity lies in its simplicity. The robots have no memory, do not need to perform any calculations and require only very little information about the environment.
With the programming developed by the Sheffield team, however, it could be possible to develop extremely small - even nanoscale - machines.
The research has been published in the International Journal of Robotics Research.