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Towards a Robotic Ecology. Briefing August 27, 1999. Rodney Brooks Greg Pottie (MIT) (UCLA). Robot Ecologies. Where we are: Single robot that has as its intellectual

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Towards a robotic ecology

Towards a Robotic Ecology

BriefingAugust 27, 1999

Rodney Brooks Greg Pottie (MIT) (UCLA)

Robot ecologies
Robot Ecologies

Where we are: Single robot that has as its intellectual

metaphor a lone animal that perhaps

can interact with people.

Where we are going now:Swarms of identical robots based on

social insect metaphors, perhaps with

augmented communication.

Where we want to go:Self deploying, and self sustaining

ecologies of plant-like robots and

animal-like robots that symbiotically

interact across many species, in order

to carry out complex missions without

logistical support.

The robot ecologists

Rod Brooks, ISAT

Greg Pottie, UCLA

Dick Urban, DARPA

Elana Ethridge, SPC

Polly Pook, IS Robotics

Sarita Thakoor, JPL

David Gerrold, writer

Russ Frew, ISAT

Al McLaughlin, ISAT

Chuck Taylor, UCLA

Maja Mataric, USC

Brian Wilcox, JPL

Paul MacCready, AeroVironment

Doug Stetson, JPL,

Helen Greiner, IS Robotics,

Ian Waitz, MIT

Dave Shaver, Lincoln Lab

Steve LaFontaine, MIT

Steve Leeb, MIT

Erik Syvrud, OST

John Blitch, DARPA

Mark Swinson, DARPA

Bob Nowak, DARPA

Keith Holcomb, Marines (ret)

The Robot Ecologists



Warfare in an asymmetrical situation

Stay outside of detection circle

depends on cross section (self)

Within circle want to:

sense what is happening

maintain long term presence

tag things and infiltrate surgically and outfiltrate(!)

maintain covertness

Stay outside of lethality circle

depends on weapons (of opponent)

Want numerical advantage

Within circle want to:

sense what is happening

provide targeting information

disrupt the opponent’s cohesion and will

Warfare in an Asymmetrical Situation

The game is changing--we must change our response.









Why using robots is hard yet good

Need covert deployment

Need occasional mobility

Need long term operation

energy supply logistics

possibly resupply (bio sensors)

Need covert information return

Robots can move

Robots can be very small

Robots can carry variety of sensors

Robots wait patiently

Need rapid deployment

Need rapid mobility

Need logistics chain

Need reliable, rapid information processing and transmission

Need active responses

Robots can move

Robots are expendable

Robots can carry a variety of sensors

Robots can provide many viewpoints

Why Using Robots Is Hard, Yet Good



We know where you are and what you are doing.

Solution the robot ecology
Solution: The Robot Ecology

  • Build an ecology of ‘animal’- and ‘plant’-like robots

    • Go beyond the idea of single mobile robots

    • Develop the collective as a super-organism where no single part understands the whole

  • The Robot Ecology

    • is a self-constructing infrastructure

    • supports diverse individual tasks and enables more complex missions

    • handles system degradation gracefully

    • is self-sustaining throughout mission life

How the components combine

caterpillar (mobile sensor)

“seed” sensors

mother plant

stationary sensor

How The Components Combine

What new capabilities
What new capabilities?

  • Precondition the battlefield for timely and precise targeting of enemy assets

    • Know the environment

      • scout, search, collect, penetrate, filter, report

    • Tag enemy assets

      • reduce fog; trace and target

    • Weaken enemy infrastructure

      • disrupt, confuse, attack cohesion and will

    • Deploy friendly infrastructure

      • communication, navigation, supplies, weapons

  • High-quality low-cost real-time intelligence available to small tactical units

Symbiosis between people and robots
Symbiosis Between People and Robots

  • The robot ecology needs to intermesh with the human organization in a symbiotic relationship

    • People are better at some things

    • Robots are better at some things

  • Robots will be the remote extension of people

    • Robots must support people rather than force people to support robots

    • People are freed to make the higher level judgements

      • in command without having to control

  • The currencies of the self-sustaining robot ecology are

    • energy and information

      • they trade against each other and between themselves

      • they need to be supplied at the right places and times

Application scenarios
Application Scenarios

  • Remote exploration

  • Tagging of people/trucks/ships/submarines

  • Self-deploying communications/power network

  • Search and rescue

  • Battlefield surveillance, mine countermeasures

  • Response to bio/chem attack

  • Monitoring (infesting) a building

  • Monitoring remote site for underground facilities (UGF)

  • Support for military operations in urban terrain (MOUT)


  • Threats: missile sites, weapons factories (e.g. biochem), command facilities, storage, weapons research

  • What needs to be done: covertly characterize the facility (activity and structure) and possibly disrupt it

  • Task List: monitor input/output of facility (roads, vents, effluent), sense nearby, sense inside, guide weapons, disrupt facility

  • Steps: locate, infiltrate/disrupt, infestation, gather information; establish logistical chain for communication, sample retrieval and/or facility disruption

Underground facility characterization
Underground Facility Characterization

(maybe satellite detect)

UAV follows; releases microflyers, “seeds”

pods, creepers, burrs, mobile

communication relay to hill

creeper down air vent;burr placed inside;set up sensor net(vibrations, gases, etc.)

burrowing device from mother plant down to buried targets

[not to scale]


  • Threats: snipers, suicide bombers, biohazards, traps/mines; complication of neutrals as shields, chaos and confusion

  • What needs to be done: avoid entering circle of lethality while establishing order and control

  • Task List: navigation, communication, clearing, securing cleared areas, security in crowded/cluttered areas

  • Steps: long-range deployment (e.g. to rooftops), local self-deployment, sense assess and reposition cycle, weapons use; diversity and numbers to overcome countermeasures

Military operations in urban terrain
Military Operations in Urban Terrain

Sensors defend secured areas

Microflyers “harvest” bio-samples

Camouflaged devices for tracking, scanning, extracting bio-samples

Creeper/climbers gather indoor /outdoor info; form comm relay

Robo-insects gain access inside doors/windows, around corners,

not to scale

Why can t we just do this today

System issues supported by technologies

Why Can’t We Just Do This Today?

  • There are some key systems challenges

    • Scaling

      • 10’s (now) to 100’s and 1000’s

    • Heterogeneity

      • Symbiotic relationships of plantbots, mobots, and people

    • Adaptivity

      • Context-aware self-organizing systems

  • Some holes in base technology research areas

    • Mobility

    • Self-configuring networks

    • Sensors

    • Energy sources

    • Cooperative behavior

Systems issues relate to technologies








Energy sources



NA 1 1

1 1 0

2 1 2

NA 1 0

1 0 1

Systems Issues Relate to Technologies

Each of these systems issues

can only be pushed forward

with adequate support from

the underlying technologies.

The technologies have

certain levels of development

as they relate to the systems


Evaluation Scale:0 = no idea 1 = fragile lab demo 2 = solid lab demo 3 = real stuff

Mobility: rolling, boring, swimming, creeping, hatching, flying,

walking, climbing, reaching, standing, peering...

Plantbots flying,

  • Current Examples:

    • factory robots, sensor networks

  • Future Examples:

    • solar net, sensor net, sensor seed, creeper vine, balloon launcher, burr, lure, tumbleweed, bio-station, any sci-fi alien plant form...

Plantbots flying,

  • Capabilities

    • Accumulate/convert energy, information, provide shelter (e.g., for short-lived bio-sensors), resupply; no self-locomotion for whole plant

  • Benefits

    • Limited mobility (seeds, creepers) can lead to advantage in information or energy collection

    • Will provide the infrastructure for the mobile ecology components

  • Challenge: requires extensive new research to devise appropriate forms and interoperation


air drop

spreads over tree

climbs up,establishes newnettwork

climbs down

mobile 'bots crawlon jungle floor

sends out networkon ground

Communications Self-Deployment

not to scale

Sensor state of the art
Sensor State of the Art flying,

  • Current:

    • Lots of low-power compact sensors exist

      • acoustic, magnetic, seismic, pressure, IR, and visible

    • Other sensors require considerable development to meet reliability/size requirements, e.g. bio/chem

    • In general, cost dominated by communications and signal processing, rather than the sensor itself

      • Imaging (IR or visible) costly in signal processing and (especially) communications

      • Active sensors (e.g. radar) costly in power; require energy support network, cueing by other sensors for sustainability

  • Future - Systems Approach:

    • Exploit large numbers of sensors via self-organizing mobile networks

Self configuring networks
Self Configuring Networks flying,

  • General-Purpose Networks won’t work:

    • set-up is labor-intensive, even for military field command posts

    • can’t be deployed in denied areas

    • pushing the limits result in high energy/complexity costs

  • Future Mobile Sensor Networks by contrast

    • are relaxed in all aspects if processing is done locally

    • exploitation of application and mobility allows energy-efficient and scalable design

Benefits of mobile sensor networks
Benefits of Mobile Sensor Networks flying,

  • Current: static distributed sensor net

    • provides dense data gathering

    • but, taxes information management through large numbers

  • Small motion can dramatically improve detection and communication

    • e.g., maximize field of view, line-of-sight, form synthetic apertures

    • with better signal need many fewer elements

  • Larger motion enables dynamic network deployment

    • repair network failures,

    • track and investigate threats beyond initial region of sensors

    • extend or change detection region

Energy generation extraction distribution
Energy Generation/Extraction/Distribution flying,

  • Many methods 1. battery exchange 2. wires (incl. telephone and power grid) 3. solar 4. wind/water/waves 5. beaming (incl. concentrator mirrors) 6. hydrocarbon/fuel cells 7. convoys/depot system 8. animals (burrs and lures) 9. vehicles (burrs; exploit vibrations)10. hybrid, e.g., both capacitors and batteries for high currents

  • Research required into how to best combine methods for particular systems and missions

Energy conversion sustainment


micro-flyer moves battery

plugs in

creeper comes out

Energy Conversion / Sustainment

Future energy management
Future Energy Management flying,

  • Sustainment through ecology

    • Design of energy system has large impact on sustainability; e.g. plantbot energy network for energy accumulation and distribution

  • Efficient use through distributed information

    • Network provides global information to minimize energy waste

      • navigation assistance, actuation/mobility avoidance, resource discovery and management, exploitation of heterogeneity of ability/location

Cooperation the lessons of ants
Cooperation: The Lessons of Ants flying,

  • Specialization and castes enable range of tasks to be performed

  • Cooperative behaviors enlarge the set of tasks

  • Main benefits of colonies however are:

    • parallelism of tasks

    • collective reliability with individual unreliability

  • Ants apply distributed algorithms for collective control

  • Much more research is needed to enable robot colonies to get these kinds of benefits

networking, competing, cooperating, distributing, sweeping...

Current cooperative robots are mostly

homogeneous, and never more than

20 robots

Robot cooperation challenges
Robot Cooperation Challenges sweeping...

  • Centralized systems are brittle and require excessive communications resources.

    • Must identify effective heuristics for distributed coordination

  • Communications and energy network self-organization cannot be general purpose

    • Cooperation must be pursued in applications context

  • Lack of operational data

    • Field tests to discover the needed behaviors for particular missions, and integrate human operators and larger military/industrial infrastructure

  • Lack of general theory of cooperation

    • With a better understanding, can reduce number of experiments

Robot ecology today
Robot Ecology Today sweeping...

  • Factory automation:

    • adjust environment for convenience of robots

  • Global economy:

    • large infrastructure in place for symbiotic human/machine interaction on regional and global scales

  • Battlefield:

    • unpredictable environment and no infrastructure, and thus many people to sustain each robot

  • Need sustained autonomous operation in diverse environments

Robot ecology tomorrow
Robot Ecology Tomorrow sweeping...

  • Scaling

    • More than 20 robots

  • Heterogeneous robots

    • Diverse sets of robots working together in sustained missions

  • Adaptivity

    • Context-aware adaptation among members of the ecology for operation in unplanned environments

Getting there
Getting There sweeping...

  • Experiments

    • short-term, incremental progress

      • integration of existing components, medium scaling

    • long-term, revolutionary steps

      • incorporation of new algorithms, components, large scale

    • standard test conditions, and real-world

  • Standard parts

    • modular robot software and hardware for plug and play

      • enables creation of diverse, distributed research community

  • Fundamental theoretical research

    • cooperation, scaling, adaptation