The Super Bowl LI halftime show jumped off with a mesmerizing light display. The glowing orbs executing choreographed moves in the sky above Lady Gaga were actually 300 of Intel’s Shooting Star drones. Built as a lightweight platform for high-powered multicolor LEDs, the drones have also made appearances at Disney Springs at Walt Disney World Resort and set a world record in Sydney.

The acrobatics are reminiscent of schooling fish or flocking starlings, causing the spectacle to be referred to as a “drone swarm” by multiple publications. However, there is a significant difference between the drones providing the backdrop for Gaga’s grand entrance, and a swarm of bees. Unlike a worker bee, the Shooting Star drones rely on commands issues directly from a central computer to govern their movements.

“They way that they work is that they wirelessly talk with the computer. The drones don’t actually communicate with each other,” says Josh Walden, General Manager of Intel’s New Technology Group, “You program them upfront for the light show itself, and then the drones essentially are independent.”

However, researchers are taking the lessons learned from studying swarm behavior in ants and bees in nature and applying them to robotics. In swarm robotics, each individual has a limited understanding of the big picture, but has an understanding of its environment, the rules governing its own behaviors, and most importantly, the ability to communicate and share information with those around itself. Without a central control structure a collective behavior may emerge from the interactions between individuals and with the environment.


A single Kilobot

Harvard’s Self-Organizing System Research Group produced this admittedly creepy video of a robot swarm self-assembling into different shapes. The small Kilobots manage to create a variety of shapes with only a single overhead light for guidance thanks to their ability to communicate with other nearby robots.

Swarms of robots can revolutionize how we approach transportation, manufacturing, medicine, and more. The Department of Defense is already testing UAV swarms for reconnaissance missions. And looking forward to the not-so-science-fiction future, smaller nano-scale versions of today’s robots may make up “programmable matter,” a material that can change its shape or properties on demand.