Robots that look more like ping pong balls could one day help to colonize Mars, so thinks their developer. The robots would work together in swarms of thousands to construct habitats for humans and perform gardening tasks.

The ping pong bots, or, “droplets” as they are known by their creator Nikolaus Correll, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, are still in the prime of their development. The 20 that have been built so far have RGB color and infrared sensing, get around with vibrating motors and communicate via wireless. Down the road Correll hopes to have a completely autonomous swarm robot platform through distributed sensing, actuation, computation and communication that can be used for just about any kind of remote sensing or even construction tasks.

He views the swarm as a “liquid that thinks” with virtually no limit to what the robots could potentially accomplish, and likens them to the “swarm” of cells that make up our bodies that can serve a bewildering array of diverse functions. The robots could be deployed to contain an oil spill, says Correll, or assemble into useful bits of hardware after being launched individually into space. They could even assemble to construct a habitat on an alien planet, if humans were to explore Mars, for example.

But the droplets are still in the early developmental stages and are far away from becoming the intelligent, multi-faceted swarm that Correll foresees. The software that allows their sensors and processors to communicate is still being written and the only swarming the robots have done so far has been through computer simulations (in which hundreds were shown to coordinate). For now Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and emergent swarm behavior to carry out pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could eventually be scaled up to perform the same tasks in the 3D space of air or underwater...