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Whilst most of the team were out of the country, Alexis and Klaus presented the Formica robots at the ALIFE XI conference on artificial life. The conference was hosted by the SENSe research group, of which I will soon be a member. It attracted researchers from around the world and sounds like it was very interesting; wish I could have been there.

Klaus worked hard to develop an algorithm for dividing the robot population between tasks in a decentralised, adaptive manner. Alexis implemented it on the robots. The algorithm enables the swarm to divide itself between tasks in arbitrary proportions. In the demo, the swarm aimed to keep 80% of robots on one task indicated by a red LED and 20% on another, green, task. If robots were removed from the arena, the swarm adapted to restore the proportions. The robots drive randomly and talk over IR when they meet. A robot decides which of the two tasks to perform by recording the proportion of task allocation in the robots it meets. I am very impressed that they managed to implement it in the short time before ALIFE.

It looks like we made a decent impact; lots of researchers have been asking for more information, where to buy the robots(!), etc. Also, we've got a huge amount of press coverage.The BBC took a good video of the demo with Klaus narrating. Nice article too. The Telegraph has another good article with some crazy photos! We're on the front page of Electronics Weekly who wrote a really excellent article, and made an insightful observation too. We're also covered on too many blogs to count; the most notable of which is engadget. Good to see there is a healthy number of comments starting with "I, for one, welcome our..."! There's even a video on youtube put up by a conference attendee. Our crowning achievement, however, has to be the post on alt.christnet.public likening the project to the biblical swarm of locusts that brought five months ot agonising torture to nonbelievers in Revelations!

None of the press releases contain the Formica project name, so unfortunately there's no convenient name tag being passed around. To anyone interested; we are working towards opening up the Formica hardware and software designs over the next few weeks so other research groups or individuals can make use of them. Firmware will be released under the GPL, and some sort of Creative Commons license will be worked out for the schematics and layout. A technical report on the design is also due for electronic publication. Watch this space.

 

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