Prepare for the Robot Apocalypse with SwarmControl

When it comes to designing the robot horde that will eventually subjugate the human race, we’re making a lot of progress.

Take the above video, for example. In it, you can see the work of Aaron Becker and his team of researchers from Rice University, who created a new algorithm that enables swarms of robots to perform “coordinated, complex tasks” using only a single controller.

Of course, we’ve seen robot formations in action before, but those usually involve computer programs controlling each robot individually, or a simple matter of “press right and every robot moves right.”

This algorithm, on the other hand, allows researchers to move robots in complex orientations while using a single input (in this case, an Atari joystick), which wouldn’t have been possible before.

Like, say, swarm a target, form a circle around it, and…EXTERMINATE!


“What can you do with 12 RC robots all slaved to one joystick remote control? In this video we demonstrate we can steer all the robots to any desired final position. The controller exploits noise: each time the joystick tells the robots to turn, every robot turns a slightly different amount.

We use these differences to slowly push the robots to goal positions. We then show a simulation with 120 robots and a more complicated goal pattern. This research is motivated by real-world challenges in micro and nano robotics, where often all the robots are steered by the same control signal.”

You can actually play around with this algorithm by visiting, where you’ll find a “game” that allows you to control hundreds of virtual robots. You play by steering the robots to accomplish various tasks (like moving blocks to a certain area), and there are multiple control schemes, such as attractive and repulsive. Give it a try; it’s interesting.

The game also records how humans interact with the robots and the algorithm, allowing researchers to improve it. So every time you play, you’re helping out a bit. In the end, researchers hope micro-robotics and this new algorithm will be beneficial for things like “targeted drug delivery,” “minimally invasive surgery,” and a number of other applications.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.