Autonomous Swarms: The Power of Group Robotics on the Blockchain
Flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarms of insects, and now... swarms of robots. Inspired by their biological counterparts, robot swarms comprise many individuals that together accomplish a task each individual robot alone cannot. Autonomous Swarms - the combination of swarm robotics and blockchain technology - is one of the 2019 emerging technology trends covered in Info-Tech's 2019 CIO Trend Report.
This year's report focuses on transformative combinations of technology. Robot swarms can exist without blockchain, but combining blockchain technology with swarm robotics pushes Autonomous Swarms past a critical threshold of security and reliability. This makes them suitable for deployment in many of the currently hypothetical use cases.
What are Autonomous Swarms?
Autonomous swarms combine the technology of swarm robotics with a blockchain-based back end. Not to be confused with collaborative robotics (several robots working together as an assembly line), swarm robotics involves multiple copies of the same robot, working independently in parallel to achieve a goal too large for any one robot to accomplish. The blockchain is a distributed ledger technology that creates an immutable, decentralized record of information. Storing information this way creates advantages such as auditability, trust, efficiency and security. By leveraging the benefits of both swarm robotics and blockchain, Autonomous Swarms has the potential to enter into new use cases - such as city cleanup, agriculture, traffic surveillance - where trust and information security are key challenges to automation.
Why use Autonomous Swarms?
As the business’s technological steward, today's IT leader must help their organization adopt emerging technologies with an eye to their long-term impact, by focusing on both business and human benefits.
Business benefits of Autonomous Swarms:
 Scale - Every agent within a robotic swarm is designed to act autonomously, with the overall swarm behavior emerging organically as a consequence of these individual tasks. This makes it simple to increase or decrease swarm size simply by adding or removing agents.
 Decentralized Decision-Making - Blockchain technology allows multiple robotic agents to reach consensus without the need for a central authority through "voting". This makes the swarm more resilient and simplifies the job of a human controller.
 Consistent Results - The blockchain enables swarms to perform their jobs more robustly, with less potential for error and malicious interference. This leads to more consistent and dependable results for businesses.
Human benefits of Autonomous Swarms:
 Dangerous Situation Avoidance - Robot swarms are ideally suited to take over dangerous or undesirable jobs such as landmine detection, dangerous machinery maintenance and city cleanup, where automation can greatly improve the quality of life of human workers.
 Resistance to Hacking - In applications where robots are in close proximity to humans and their data, the resistance to malicious attacks afforded by blockchain means greater peace of mind for the people whose data robotic swarms may be handling.
 Error Avoidance - Consistency and dependability result from the decision-making and auditability possibilities blockchain opens for robotic swarms. For humans, this means less worry about errors in handling tasks such as pesticide use in crops.
Key dependencies of Autonomous Swarms:
As an emerging technology, Autonomous Swarms raise new considerations for businesses looking to deploy it. These questions must be resolved before Autonomous Swarms can be deployed at scale:
1. Autonomy's guiding principles - As swarms grow larger, the question of how to monitor and control so many agents becomes more pressing. As we entrust more of the robots’ operation to algorithmic decision-making, we must be clear on the underlying safety and privacy assumptions, definitions of “harm,” and the robots’ role in protecting human interests.
2. Readiness for automation - Human cognitive processing limits, coupled with the large number of agents in typical robotic swarms, necessitate some degree of algorithmic automation. The key consideration becomes: which aspects of the swarm’s operation to leave up to the algorithm, and which key factors to keep under human surveillance. Define the rules the govern autonomous behavior with an eye to difficult cases.
3. Regulation of collected data - With increasing automation comes the collection of staggering amounts of data. Most of the civilian use cases, such as robotic food delivery, or even street cleanup, has the potential to collect human data, either through necessity, such as recording a delivery address, or by accident, such as by capturing a passer-by in a robot’s vision. The potential for privacy violations and their prevention must be a key consideration in the development of any swarm robotics strategy.
Where is the technology now? A swarm robotics case study
In Australia, SwarmFarm Robotics is developing a farming approach using swarm robotics that is targeted rather than sweeping: using multiple autonomous machines, smaller than traditional farming machinery, to perform targeted actions, such as administering pesticides only where they are needed. Where the old approach was to take a large tractor, capable of spraying several rows of crops with pesticide simultaneously, the smaller robots use artificial intelligence to roam the field, identify weeds, and spray only them, leaving crops intact. This has resulted in gains in efficiency and consistency that exceed those of the traditional approach.
SwarmFarm’s robots have been adapted to other applications, including irrigation, planting, weeding and harvesting. In all cases, a more targeted approach means greater precision and economy of resources. Pesticide and fertilizer can be applied more sparingly, and planting and harvesting can be done with individual attention to each plant, an impossible task with large-scale machinery. The new approach produces greater yields at reduced cost, while raising the quality of the crop.
Several robots have been under development and testing on SwarmFarm land. SwarmFarm has garnered support through government funding, and partnered with PWC Australia, Adama Australia, Bosch and other sponsors to bring the robots to market.
Are Autonomous Swarms right for your business?
When evaluating whether this technology is worth investigating further, consider: do you have a use case? Autonomous Swarm robotics is a powerful solution primarily for problems that are amenable to a distributed approach. If you have such a use case, consider how the key dependencies will affect it. For example, data privacy may not be as important for farming as for city surveillance.
If you are an IT leader looking to capitalize on Autonomous Swarms, identify the key dependencies specific to your industry and learn about the current cutting edge solutions. Look for opportunities to partner with technology developers as early adopters, in order to have a hand in shaping the development of the technology for your use case.
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