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Collective transport of complex objects by simple robots: theory and experiments

Ants show an incredible ability to collectively transport complex irregular-shaped objects with seemingly simple coordination. Achieving similarly effective collective transport with robots has potential applications in many settings, from agriculture to construction to disaster relief. In this paper we investigate a simple decentralized strategy for collective transport in which each agent acts independently without explicit coordination. Using a physics-based model, we prove that this strategy is guaranteed to successfully transport a complex object to a target location, even though each agent only knows the target direction and does not know the object shape, weight, its own position, or the position and number of other agents. Using two robot hardware platforms, and a wide variety of complex objects, we validate the strategy through extensive experiments. Finally, we present a set of experiments to demonstrate the versatility of the simple strategy, including transport by 100 robots, transport of an actively moving object, adaptation to change in goal location, and dealing with partially observable goals.

Michael Rubenstein, Adrian Cabrera, Justin Werfel, Golnaz Habibi, James McLurkin, Radhika Nagpal
AAMAS 2013