The understanding of collective phenomena is one of the major intellectual challenges in a wide range of fields, from materials science to life science. One fundamentally interesting and technologically impactful system is swarm robotics – a collection of robots that can self-organize and exhibit higher-level collective intelligence. Because of the low cost of individual units of the swarm, swarm robots may have a profound impact on a wide range of disciplines, such as information gathering, cooperative missions, and collective artificial intelligence. 

This Atombot project will build a controllable miniature swarm robot system, based on a prototype developed by the Z Lab, study the fundamental emergent behavior of many-robot systems, and explore mission-critical applications in homeland security and safeguard. The Atombot team seeks students with a broad range of backgrounds and interests to take roles in the technology, science, and commercialization sub-teams. Students will have the opportunity to develop skills in additive manufacture, electronics, control and optimization, physics, and business development.

Team Organization

The team is flexibly structured into sub-teams to promote focus and efficiency and nurture team science. Each sub-team will select a team leader, who will oversee the research activities of the sub-team and take the prime responsibility of reporting. Students are expected to work closely with their respective sub-team members and, at the same time, collaborate organically with other sub-teams. Students may move between sub-teams as workload and individual interest dictates. 

First-year undergraduates through master’s students are all welcome to apply to fill in the different roles of the team. Furthermore, recurring enrollment after one year is encouraged for the students to develop a deep understanding of the technology as well as leadership and entrepreneurship skills. As the students’ knowledge grows over time, leadership roles from technical lead to entrepreneurial lead are available for experienced students.

The project sub-teams are currently organized as follows.

Locomotion (2-4 Students)

Preferred skills: PCB and circuit design (Altium or Eagle) and fabrication; fabrication skills (3D printing, laser cutter, milling machine, soldering, etc.); programming with C/C++/Python; 3D CAD design (SolidWorks); self-balancing algorithm.

Specific tasks: review the literature on miniature locomotion mechanisms; evaluate the pros and cons of the existing designs and principles; design, manufacture, and test the atombot platform and reiterate.

Sensor and Communication (2-4 Students)

Preferred skills: PCB and circuit design (Altium or Eagle) and fabrication; Fabrication skills (3D printing, laser cutter, milling machine, soldering, etc.); programming with C/C++/Python; 3D CAD design (SolidWorks).

Specific tasks: review the literature on location and contact sensing technologies (UWB, proximity, accelerometer, gyrometer, etc.) and near-field communication technologies; design and implement location and contact sensors to the atombot platform.

Robot Physics (2-4 Students)

Preferred skills: statistical mechanics/thermodynamics; programming with C/C++/Python; liquid state physics.

Specific tasks: review the literature on collective behavior of robots and robophysics; collect data of the atombot swarm; study the dynamics and phase behavior of atom swarm (jamming, phase transitions, etc.).

Entrepreneurship (2-3 Students)

Preferred skills: oral and written presentations and communications; business leadership; web design.

Specific tasks: explore the use case of swarm robots; construct a business plan; design and create a website; discover and interview potential customers.

Faculty Sponsor

Headshot of Yang Zhang

Y Z (Yang Zhang)

Professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences

The research in the Z Lab can be summarized into two words: Matter and Machine. On the Matter side, his group studies far-from-equilibrium physics. They synergistically combine and push the boundaries of statistical and stochastic thermodynamic theories, accelerated molecular simulations, understandable AI/ML/DS methods, and neutron scattering experiments, with the goal of significantly extending our understanding of a wide range of long timescale phenomena and rare events. Particular emphasis is given to the physics and chemistry of liquids and complex fluids, especially at interfaces, driven away from equilibrium, or under extreme conditions. On the Machine side, leveraging their expertise in materials and modeling, his group advances the development of soft robots and human-compatible machines, swarm robots and collective intelligence, and robots in extreme environments, which can lead to immediate societal impact.

Weekly Meeting Time and Location: Students will enroll in ENGR 255, 355, 455, or 599 for 2 credits per term. Annual, two-term enrollment commitments begin each January.

The Atombot team holds all-hands mandatory in-person meetings once every week on Monday 4-5 pm ET, to discuss everything pertinent to the project and students’ growth, such as planning, progress, technical problems and solutions, coordination, publication, etc. 

Sub-teams meet weekly with their sub-team leader in person at mutually convenient times. The PI/Faculty may attend sub-team meetings as required. Team members are expected to meet and work together in person.

We maintain a Slack/Discord space to communicate, coordinate progress, seek support from others, and generally keep each other informed.

Course Substitutions: Honors, CS-ENG/DS-ENG/EE/CE-ENGR 355 and higher can count toward Flex Tech

These substitutions/departmental courses are available for students in these respective majors.  MDP does not yet have a formal agreement with other departments for substitutions/departmental courses not listed.  Please reach out to your home department’s academic advisor about how you might apply MDP credits to your degree plan. 

Number of Students: 8-15

Likely Majors: EP, ROB, ECE, CS, SI, Physics, ME, MSE, NERS, Business

Citizenship Requirements: This project is open to all students on campus

IP/NDA: Students who successfully match to this project team will be required to sign an Intellectual Property (IP) Agreement prior to starting participation in January.

Summer Opportunity: Summer research fellowships may be available for qualifying students

Learn more about the expectations for this type of MDP project