Anyone with children knows that while controlling one child can be hard, controlling many at once can be nearly impossible. Getting swarms of robots to work collectively can be equally challenging, unless researchers carefully choreograph their interactions — like planes in formation — using increasingly sophisticated components and algorithms. But what can be reliably accomplished when the robots on hand are simple, inconsistent, and lack sophisticated programming for coordinated behavior?

A team of researchers led by Dana Randall, ADVANCE Professor of Computing and Daniel Goldman, Dunn Family Professor of Physics, both at Georgia Institute of Technology, sought to show that even the simplest of robots can still accomplish tasks well beyond the capabilities of one, or even a few, of them. The goal of accomplishing these tasks with what the team dubbed “dumb robots” (essentially mobile granular particles) exceeded their…

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