How is swarm robotics used in security?

Swarm robotics

Technological advances have made swarm robotics more accessible, and its applications in the security field have broadened. Now, companies can use them to monitor, protect and assist. However, although these machines are highly capable, can they replace security guards?

What Is Swarm Robotics?

Swarm robotics is a branch of the multi-robot field. It involves a large group of self-organized machines coordinating their movements and decisions using local communication and control mechanisms. These groups are almost always sizable and scalable.

These robots are technically simple, meaning their hardware and software are often basic. This is because, like cogs in a machine, they must only complete one specific task. Consequently, this means they’re relatively useless alone. However, when swarming, they’re highly effective.

Depending on their intended applications, numerous types of robots can swarm, including flying, aquatic, wheeled and articulated models. While the definition of swarm robotics is broad, autonomy is one of the main qualifiers — each group member must be able to govern itself to some degree.

The study of insect and animal behaviors inspired the concept of swarm robotics — species like bees, wolves, ants and birds are made up of individuals but operate like a single interconnected system. Robotics engineers applied this concept to their designs.

How Swarm Robotics Works

For the most part, swarm robots must have a few fundamental technologies. Wireless communication is among the most important since it enables each node to provide and receive constant feedback. This way, each individual can coordinate with the group.

Every robot also needs local sensing capabilities to communicate where it is and what it’s doing with the other group members. Built-in hardware like cameras, sonar, pyrometers, ultrasonic sensors, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), accelerometers and radar help it process and navigate its surroundings.

Navigation is fundamental to any swarm — if robots don’t form a predetermined pattern and communicate their positioning, they risk running into each other. These groups often arrange themselves in a line, flock or cluster to simplify organization and improve collision avoidance.

Regarding decision-making — also known as swarm intelligence — these robots have no “brain” or leader. They wirelessly communicate their positioning, conditions and intentions constantly, enabling them to act as one instead of as individuals. Although each technically acts autonomously, the collective’s goal takes priority.

Robotics engineers have begun integrating the artificial intelligence field into robotics engineering. Many modern swarms utilize it because it enables rapid and dynamic decision-making. Machine learning models can adapt to unprecedented situations and act on the fly.

Swarm robotics can be decentralized or centralized. The group uses distributed communication and control mechanisms or relies on a central system to process data and acquire directives.

Why Are Swarm Robots Used in Security?

Swarm robots are ideal for security situations because they minimize the risk of harm to personnel. Since they can act autonomously and efficiently, teams can send them in to complete a specific task instead of going in themselves.

Critical security events can happen at any time. In these situations, seconds make a difference in whether or not teams save assets, money or lives. Since swarms share information in real time with no need for a back-and-forth or delay — and no risk of miscommunication — they are ideal for high-risk scenarios.

Another reason swarm robotics is used in security is the price tag. While complex systems like these used to be too expensive to develop and operate, the cost of robotic systems has dropped by 50% since 1990. Now, this technology is accessible to many more people.

How Swarm Robotics Is Used in Security

Several use cases for swarm robotics in security exist, depending on the robot’s build and built-in technologies.

1. Patrolling

A swarm can be spread out, enabling them to effectively patrol large compounds. The benefit of this dynamic surveillance is real-time communication and response — if one robot knows something, the others do, too. This way, if one sees something suspicious or identifies an intruder, they can react swiftly and collectively.

2. Intelligence Gathering

Swarm robots can easily gather and share intelligence. The United States Navy hopes to use this technology to thwart smuggling or unexpected hostile attacks. Already, it has showcased how its aerial and aquatic drones can collect reconnaissance data.

3. Tracking

Mobile swarms can track people using thermal imaging, global positioning systems or video cameras. Since multiple robots operate collectively, they’ll have an easier time following and recording suspicious individuals.

4. Guarding

Swarm robots are the ideal guards because they can protect dangerous assets or locations without risk of harm. If they’re damaged, they can simply be repaired. Plus, since they work as a group, they’re a strong deterrent for any would-be criminal.

5. Clearing

Sometimes, security personnel must enter a dangerous area to neutralize a threat. They can deploy a swarm to check and clear rooms in these situations. This way, they know which areas are safe to enter. Moreover, their chance of quickly locating the individual rises significantly. Best of all, they don’t have to risk their well-being in the process.

Obstacles These Robots Must Overcome

While swarm robotics is a promising field, it’s still relatively new. Consequently, engineers must overcome a few major hurdles. Cybersecurity is one of the biggest, as each machine represents a unique attack vector. The larger the group, the larger the attack surface.

While the robots collect and process intelligence locally, they often send it to a central cloud server. They must also send and receive information over a network to communicate. Transmitting packets and connecting to the internet leaves them vulnerable to hacks, malware injection and data tampering.

Even if engineers use security measures to secure robots against cyberthreats, physical threats still pose an issue. Whether the swarm is made up of aerial, aquatic or ground machines, obstacles are challenging — having hardware and software limitations means they can only handle simple instructions.

Some group members may be unable to keep up with the rest, whether the obstacle is a large pothole, a rainstorm or cloudy waters. If one falls out, the others must be able to compensate. If they can’t, they risk failing to complete their duties.

What happens when a robot malfunctions? What about when it needs to recharge? While swarms are large — meaning they can handle losing a few group members — those that don’t account for redundancies have a high chance of failure.

Range is another common obstacle. Many existing swarms operate within short distances of each other because long-range communication requires more complex technology — and can cause delays and bottlenecks. Being limited to close quarters isn’t ideal for large-scale security.

The Future of Swarming Robots

Swarming robots are relatively uncommon in practice because research and development can be costly. Moreover, their technical constraints limit their capabilities to specific situations. However, technological advancements are improving accessibility and broadening use cases.

Many researchers focus on AI because of its untapped potential. The machine learning field has advanced exceptionally quickly, making it ideal for integration. Engineers could use it to make their autonomous machines smarter, improving virtually every aspect of their swarm.

Researchers are also looking into the blockchain — a digital system for recording transactions — to make surveillance swarms more secure and scalable. A distributed ledger system can log each data point the machines collect and share, making communication more transparent. All records would be highly visible and tamper-proof.

Some research institutions and government agencies are funding swarm robotics projects to further their military, protection and intelligence-gathering applications. For instance, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently gave a $316,000 federal grant to the University at Buffalo Artificial Intelligence Institute to advance reconnaissance swarms.

The parties want to use human brain waves to teach their machines how to coordinate more effectively, increasing the chances of mission success. Eventually, they aim to scale up to 250 ground or aerial robots.

Swarm Robotics Versus Security Guards

If collaborative robots — machines that work alongside humans — are any indicator, swarms likely won’t replace security guards. Instead, they’ll take over the life-threatening, mundane or basic responsibilities, leaving complex duties to the humans.