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Beyond pheromones: evolving error-tolerant, flexible, and scalable ant-inspired robot swarms

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For robot swarms to operate outside of the laboratory in complex real-world environments, they require the kind of error tolerance, flexibility, and scalability seen in living systems. While robot swarms are often designed to mimic some aspect of the behavior of social insects or other organisms, no systems have yet addressed all of these capabilities in a single framework. We describe a swarm robotics system that emulates ant behaviors, which govern memory, communication, and movement, as well as an evolutionary process that tailors those behaviors into foraging strategies that maximize performance under varied and complex conditions. The system evolves appropriate solutions to different environmental challenges. Solutions include the following: (1) increased communication when sensed information is reliable and resources to be collected are highly clustered, (2) less communication and more individual memory when cluster sizes are variable, and (3) greater dispersal with increasing swarm size. Analysis of the evolved behaviors reveals the importance of interactions among behaviors, and of the interdependencies between behaviors and environments. The effectiveness of interacting behaviors depends on the uncertainty of sensed information, the resource distribution, and the swarm size. Such interactions could not be manually specified, but are effectively evolved in simulation and transferred to physical robots. This work is the first to demonstrate high-level robot swarm behaviors that can be automatically tuned to produce efficient collective foraging strategies in varied and complex environments.

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This work is supported by NSF Grant EF-1038682, DARPA CRASH Grant P-1070-113237, and a James S. McDonnell Foundation Complex Systems Scholar Award. We gratefully acknowledge members of the Biological Computation Lab: Karl Stolleis, Bjorn Swenson, Justin Carmichael, Kenneth Letendre, and Neal Holtschulte, for their assistance with the iAnt swarm robotics project. We also thank Deborah Gordon for illuminating discussions about seed-harvesting ant behaviors, Alan Winfield for discussions about swarm foraging problems, and Lydia Tapia and Stephanie Forrest for constructive feedback on this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Joshua P. Hecker.

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Hecker, J.P., Moses, M.E. Beyond pheromones: evolving error-tolerant, flexible, and scalable ant-inspired robot swarms. Swarm Intell 9, 43–70 (2015).

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