How Blockchain Could Make Robot Swarms Smarter

The robots are coming, and they're getting smaller, smarter and cheaper.

While today, businesses may own just a single drone, one day, large parts of whole industries could be overseen by a new generation of robots. But, how will groups of these robots perform useful tasks like collecting crop data or organizing around a common goal?

That's one role for the blockchain proposed in a new white paper from MIT Media Lab research affiliate Eduardo Castelló Ferrer. The eight-year robotics veteran believes that by using the blockchain to distribute information, whole armies of robots could solve problems and accomplish tasks more efficiently.

The idea is that in robotic swarms, each robot follows basic rules, drawing inspiration from creatures like ants and fish that often clump together. These small rules then add up to collective behaviors, such as distributed sensing or search-and-rescue missions, that emerge as a result of the interactions between robots.

So far, these ideas haven't been deployed on a large-scale. But researchers have high hopes for use cases such as so-called "precision farming," where fleets of drones could be used to inspect crops and paint a more granular picture for farmers.

As researchers are moving forward with this futuristic idea, they're facing many security and logistical problems that have prevented robot swarms from moving from research labs to the real world. But, Ferrer thinks that the blockchain could lead to "serious progress" in swarm robotics.

The white paper explains:

The combination of blockchain with other distributed systems, such as robotic swarm systems, can provide the necessary capabilities to make robotic swarm operations more secure, autonomous, flexible and even profitable.

Applying bitcoin to robotics has been theorized before for autonomous networks of driverless cars or drones that would deliver packages.

But this is different; the white paper sketches a blockchain-based system where robotic "nodes" organize in a secure, distributed way. One potential role for the blockchain is to help the robotic groups to come to agreement about a decision without a central authority.

It outlines a model where the robotic swarms use the blockchain by serving as nodes in a network and "encapsulating their transactions in blocks". Blockchain-based applications described in the white paper include secure communications between robots, distributed decision-making, behavior differentiation and new business models.

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