Despite seeping into nearly every industry around the world, the field of robotics has a major problem: accessibility. There are countless theories on how robots might be used to benefit humanity, but robotics is an expensive field, mostly controlled by private organizations and well established academic labs with the funds to indulge their experimentation. It’s simply inaccessible to most. That’s where Georgia Tech’s Robotarium comes in.

Housed in the Van Leer Building in Atlanta’s Georgia Tech campus, the Robotarium is an attempt to democratize the study of robotics, specifically swarm robotics. It offers a platform where academics and amateurs, students and hobbyists, or anyone that wants to move beyond simulations in order to test theories using physical robots, can do so at no cost. It’s able to offer this thanks to generous grants, dozens of small, remotely controlled robots and a series of eight high-speed Vicon Vantage cameras, capable of tracking several fast-moving objects at once with precision.   

Swarm robotics is particularly appealing to researchers, as it turns a group of robots into a collective entity that obeys simple instructions while performing multiple tasks in parallel. Its very nature allows for an inherent redundancy, as single (or several) individual robots can fail and the group can still complete the task. Multiple robots can also search an area more quickly and with higher resolution than a single robot.

One day, this capability could aid in diverse situations, from disaster relief and personal defense to construction in inhospitable locations: basically, in any situation where robots would be more effective than humans. But unfortunately, there has been a fundamental bottleneck when it comes to resources and accessibility.

The Robotarium is the brainchild of roboticist Magnus Egerstedt, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Science, who realized that advances in swarm robotics were being stunted by a lack of accessibility. Swarm robotics testbeds are rare and almost always private, so Egerstedt set about creating a communal platform with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

The prototype Robotarium used up to 20 custom-built robots in an area roughly 4.2 feet by 3 feet, with a standard camera tracking system overhead. Over the last year, the project has grown in size and scope and now features up to 50 robots in the swarm. Ongoing improvements will expand that number even further to 100 robots – including fast-moving quadcopters. This led to an upgrade to Vicon’s IR-based motion tracking system.

Vicon’s IR-based motion tracking system was designed to work with high numbers of objects, fast moving and otherwise. On top of a live stream, for users to watch, the cameras provide precise position and orientation data information. With dozens of small robots moving at once, standard cameras cannot accurately track each movement, making the data less useful to high-end research.

“We're sending data back for world-class research. We can't send our users back stuff that is not precise,” said Dr. Sean Wilson, director of operations at the Robotarium. “The sub-millimeter precision of Vicon is imperative. The ability to separate different robots from one another just by the patterns of balls that we basically just stuck onto the robots is incredibly useful. It makes tracking so much more streamlined.”

The Robotarium is open to anyone who wants to use it for academic or hobby purposes – the team is considering ways to allow commercial research without those groups dominating all the available time. Users can design an algorithm to control the robotic swarm, using the Robotarium’s software, or they can import their own.

After a project has been approved (which involves a simple check to ensure the purpose of the test is legitimate and won’t harm the robots), users enter a queue and wait their turn. During their turn, users have around 10 minutes to control the robotic swarm within a 12 feet by 14 feet arena. Once the experiment is complete, the robots deactivate just long enough to recharge their 20-minute batteries through inductive charging coils in the floor, before they are reassigned to a new user.

The Robotarium currently has around 300 users from all walks of life, including groups from Stanford, Arizona State and even the Girl Scouts of America, who are using the Robotarium to get girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. As user numbers grow, so too does the demand on the Robotarium’s equipment. But rather than seeing that as a limitation, the team at the Robotarium take it as a challenge.

“We are excited because as our user base continues to grow and we introduce more and more robots, I think we're going to push the limits of Vicon,” said Dr. Wilson. “This is new ground for us, and we intend to push the Vicon system to the limit to see just how many objects the software can track at once. It’s going to be exciting.”