Discover Your Island

‘Swarmbots’ Take Over the Island University’s Distinguished Speaker Series

October 18, 2017

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – As one of the leaders on the forefront of the field of robotics, Dr. James McLurkin, Senior Hardware Engineer at Google and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, has a vast amount of knowledge to share. That’s just what he did Oct. 18, during the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi fall 2017 Distinguished Speaker Series. During his talk titled, “The Future of Robots is Swarms: Why a Thousand Robots are Better than One,” McLurkin engaged an audience of robot enthusiasts with his astounding “Swarmbots.”

“I am really excited to meet Dr. McLurkin because I am just learning the basics of Robotics so I hope to learn things from him that will help me improve,” said Megan De Rouck, a senior from San Diego High School. “We have two robotics teams at our school and my teacher thought that it would be a great idea to bring us here to meet an expert.”

Inspired by the behavior of insects like ants and bees, McLurkin’s research focuses on the development of distributed algorithms for multi-robot systems – the software for large swarms of autonomous robots. At the event, McLurkin showed off this programming in a multi-robot demonstration, during which 12 robots engaged in grouping behaviors ranging from following each other in a line to swarming around a single robot. To complete the tasks, each robot was assigned a number. Using this number system, the robots were able to arrange themselves in numerical order and even choose a leader.

 “It’s important that the robots are able to communicate, but also have geometry using infrared sensors,” said McLurkin. “The local network geometry is critical to any navigation task. If I can talk to you but I don’t know where you are, I can’t navigate to you.”

According to McLurkin, the Swarmbots have uses ranging from monitoring forest fires to monitoring offshore oil spills. McLurkin also explained how his Swarmbots could be useful during an earthquake, a natural disaster he says humans are distinctly unsuited to handle.

“Basically, you would have a thousand roach-sized robots that are going through the rubble, searching for signs of life,” explained McLurkin. “When they find someone, they will relay that information to one-hundred rat-sized robots that will then go into the rubble and compute the best way to extract the survivor. Then, they will relay that information to ten brontosaurus-sized robots that will execute the extraction plan and free the survivor.”

McLurkin also shared his vision for a future where biology and robotics could work together to influence science. During the free student forum, Dr. McLurkin asked eight Island University students to join him on stage for a special demonstration that showed how his robots shared information in a manner that is similar to how bees communicate in nature. Using mathematic calculations, the students worked in pairs to pass on information.

“This demonstration is important because it’s the same way bees share food,” said Dr. McLurkin. “They compute the global average of food amongst their hive, so if the whole hive is hungry, each bee can make a local decision to go get food. My robots work in a similar manner.”

McLurkin is known for cherishing his “Nerd Pride” and is dedicated to bringing science to the younger members of our society in a fun and interactive way. For McLurkin, this involves making robots available to K-12 students. Echoing this sentiment Dr. Frank Pezold, Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, shared the University’s mission of creating a stronger pipeline of students interested in pursuing a science-related career through the College’s STEM Summer Institute.

“Every summer our faculty give students in kindergarten through 12th grade the opportunity to operate multiple unmanned systems including unmanned aircraft, unmanned ground vehicles and unmanned aquatic vehicles,” said Pezold during the welcome. “I am proud to say that the impact we have on students starts before they’re college-aged, and by engaging these students while they are young we invest in future Islanders before they even step foot onto campus.”

As thanks for bringing his expertise to the Island University, Dr. Ahmed Mahdy, Interim Vice President for Research, Commercialization and Outreach, welcomed McLurkin to the Islander family with a special lei made out of Legos in honor of his incredible contributions to the field of robotics.

“Here at the Island University, it is a tradition for graduating students to proudly wear a purple lei as they walk across the commencement stage to get their diplomas,” said Mahdy to McLurkin. “We wanted to share this tradition with you and present you with this lei so that you may consider yourself an Islander forever.”

At the end of the presentation, Mahdy asked the audience to stay tuned for a newly reimagined Distinguished Speaker Series to start next year.

Sponsors of the fall 2017 Distinguished Speaker Series included KRIS Communications, La Palmera, Cooper Outdoor, AEP Texas, Flint Hills, ICA Radio, V Boutique Hotel and Pizza State.

To learn more about the Distinguished Speaker Series and join the Patron Society, visit http://dss.tamucc.edu/.