AMS Spring 2023

The Calm Before the Swarm: Notre Dame Researcher 3D Prints Swarm of Robot Insects

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The spread of blueprints for DIY gun manufacture has been one of the most infamous developments in 3D printing’s recent history. But this is, of course, far from the only overlap between weapons production and 3D printing. Across the planet in the most economically advanced nations, money is pouring into the industry from defense programs; a recent post on 3Dprint.com PRO describes the current state of affairs quite succinctly in its assertion that AM “is quietly revolutionizing the defense industry.”

It’s this overlap that causes alarm when I see something like a recent paper published in Science Robotics, “Self-reconfigurable multilegged robot swarms collectively accomplish challenging terradynamic tasks.” One of the co-authors, robotics engineer Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Notre Dame, based the article on her study testing the premise that “…a physical connection between individual robots could enhance the mobility of a terrestrial legged collective system.” For the study, Ozkan-Aydin (who co-authored the paper with Georgia Tech professor Daniel Goldman) 3D printed four-legged robots, 6 to 8 inches in length, powered by lithium polymer batteries and guided by microcontrollers. Each robot was also given three sensors—a light sensor in the front and two magnetic sensors in the back.

“You don’t need additional sensors to detect obstacles because the flexibility in the legs helps the robot to move right past them. They can test for gaps in a path, building a bridge with their bodies; move objects individually; or connect to move objects collectively in different types of environments, not dissimilar to ants,” Ozkan-Aydin said in a press release.

Sure, they look cute now, but just wait until they’re armed! (Image courtesy of Notre Dame News)

Swarm 3D printing itself isn’t exactly new. The Pentagon was already announcing work on 3D swarm printing surveillance and attack drones back in 2016. What is, new, however, is bringing the sophistication of the technology in its airborne form back down to the ground. Rather ingeniously, Ozkan-Aydin based her study on the real-life behavior of collective biological systems like honeybees, ants, and birds. This is reminiscent of the project announced by a team at Harvard back in February 2021, which worked on a school of robotic fish.

Ozan-Aydik’s project is similar in concept to a bioinspired robotics project at Harvard that worked on autonomous 3D printed fish swarms (Image courtesy of Self-organizing Systems Research Group)

Ozkan-Aydin commented, “Legged robots can navigate challenging environments such as rough terrain and tight spaces, and the use of limbs offers effective body support, enables rapid maneuverability and facilitates obstacle crossing…However, legged robots face unique mobility challenges in terrestrial environments, which results in reduced locomotor performance.”

So, what does this have to do with weapons? Directly, perhaps nothing, but it’s certainly ominous to read about this in the same atmosphere in which stories keep coming out from scientists who work in the field, warning humanity about the incalculably destructive potential of autonomous robot weapons systems. Considering all of the research in a highly scientific field such as this one ends up getting cross-pollinated (pun, as always, intended), it’s by no means a stretch to think that as soon as the technology is proven viable, it’s going to start being weaponized. In this case, whatever anyone’s concerns were about easy access to 3D printed guns, multiply that exponentially regarding the implications of widespread swarm 3D printing.

Even if they’re not explicitly armed, one shudders at the thought of what dystopian conclusions could be drawn from applying collective behavior research to robots or humans. Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, once said in his 1950 book, The Human Use of Human Beings, “If man were to adopt [the ant community] as a pattern, he would live in a fascist state, …[whereby] each individual is conditioned from birth for his proper occupation” (p. 51). Towards the end of the same book, Wiener mentions how much better off we might be if, on all the science and research boards dominated by engineers and technicians, we also placed a philosopher or an anthropologist to constantly ask whether the projects being worked on would produce truly benevolent outcomes for humanity as a whole. Posing a question like this seems more timely than ever.

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