At about the size of a quarter, these little guys aren't the robot overlords of sci-fi lore, but they're pretty impressive all the same. Harvard researchers programmed 1,024 of the "kilobots" to work in tandem with each other to form complex shapes, a feat being hailed as the biggest robot swarm ever created, reports the Wall Street Journal. The development—inspired by collaborations in nature by the likes of bees, ants, and birds—is detailed in Science and is nothing short of "engineering majesty," a roboticist at Rice University not involved with the research tells the Boston Globe.
Each tiny robot has a battery, a sensor to detect where fellow robots are, and three vibrating legs on which it moves. Lead researcher Mike Rubenstein explains that he draws up a pattern on a computer, beams it to all the robots at once, and off they go. No one robot is in charge. "The only thing they have to go on, to make decisions, is what their neighbors are doing," he tells the BBC. Possible applications in the future include everything from oil-spill cleanups to the exploration of planets. Rubenstein's one regret might be the name "kilobot," a play off kilobyte. "Unfortunately, it sounds like they're 'killerbots,' which ... we don't intend for them to be killing anyone," he tells NPR. (Click to read about another robot that can fold itself up and walk off.)