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Robot Swarms neutralize Threats

by Pieter Werner

New research sheds light on how blockchain technology, a central component in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, can be employed to protect swarms of robots. Through a series of experiments with both actual and simulated robots, the study illustrates how blockchain can enable a swarm to counteract harmful robots without requiring human interference, enhancing the potential for independent and safe robot swarm deployments.

Robot swarms are multi-robot systems comprising numerous robots that collaborate to complete a task. Notably, these swarms operate without a central control unit, with the collective behavior resulting from localized interactions between robots. This decentralization allows robot swarms to function independently of external infrastructure, including the internet, making them ideal for diverse environments such as underground, underwater, at sea, and in space.

While present applications of swarm robotics are primarily demonstrated in research settings, experts predict these swarms will become integral parts of daily life in the near future. Potential applications range from environmental monitoring, underwater exploration, infrastructure inspection, to waste management, where robot swarms are expected to outperform humans and promote a sustainable future with minimal pollution and enhanced quality of life.

However, the real-world deployment of robot swarms is not without challenges. There’s a high likelihood that some robots in a swarm may malfunction due to harsh environmental conditions or even cyberattacks. These rogue robots, referred to as “Byzantine” robots, can, like a virus, spread through the swarm and cause system-wide breakdowns. Security research in swarm robotics is a crucial, yet largely unexplored field.

The new study offers a promising solution to this issue. It demonstrates how blockchain technology, previously used to prevent Byzantine users, such as hackers, from manipulating internet networks, can secure robot swarms. By utilizing blockchain-based smart contracts—programming code executed in a blockchain network that cannot be manipulated or stopped—the researchers have devised an economic system wherein beneficial robots are rewarded for sending useful information, and Byzantine robots are penalized.

This token-based economy prevents Byzantine robots from participating in swarm activities and influencing collective behavior. However, implementing blockchain within a robot swarm increases computational requirements, such as CPU, RAM, and disk space usage. Despite these increased needs, the study shows that the additional requirements are manageable and have minimal impact on the robots’ performance.

The successful integration of blockchain technology into robot swarms opens up possibilities for a range of secure robotic applications. To further foster this progress, the software frameworks developed during the research have been released as open-source.

Photo: Dr. Volker Strobel, postdoctoral researcher; Prof. Marco Dorigo, research director of the F.R.S.-FNRS; and Alexandre Pacheco, doctoral student. The researchers from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. Credit: IRIDIA, Université Libre de Bruxelles

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