center for systems

& synthetic biology

an NIGMS national systems biology center


Kilobots Robotics Workshop Simulates Collective Biological Behaviors

August 22, 2014

From August 18-22, the Center was host to a robotics workshop in collaboration with the Harvard Self-organizing Systems Research group to program a swarm of 100 small robots to simulate collective behaviors.


What are the design principles that allow collections of molecules within cells, or cells within organisms, to achieve highly complex global function? How does robustness arise from collectives of unreliable and limited individual agents? And, can we model such design principles in synthetic systems? As in the biological sciences, the field of collective (or “swarm”) robotics is interested in understanding principles and algorithms that allow large numbers of relatively simple robots to robustly perform complex tasks. The “kilobot” platform, developed by the Self-organizing Systems Research (SSR) Lab at Harvard University, is well-suited to simulating a variety of biological phenomena. This platform provides a synthetic and physical testbed for life scientists to efficiently simulate many biological agents.


This week-long hands-on workshop taught participants how to program their own 100-robot collective to physically simulate and investigate biological collective behaviors. On days 1-3, focus was on structured labs where participants programmed robots to execute a variety of biological behaviors, including phototaxis, morphogen gradients, synchronization, among others. During days 4 and 5, the group brainstormed and produced several biologically-inspired “demos” on the 100-kilobot collective synthesizing an interesting complex biological behavior. On Day 5, demonstrations were opened to the public, and over 100 people attended — participating in hands-on manipulations of the group’s demos. One of the more successful demos, pictured below, programmed rules for pattern formation which allow a group of robots to form polarized patterns based on robot-robot communication. (video also here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlgSTu-XWaU). Check out this simulation as well: http://www.sfu.ca/physics/sivakgroup.html.


After the workshop, the 100-kilobot collective will remain at UCSF for future research and teaching.