A couple who work in the University of Wyoming’s Computer Science Department have received a $100,000 grant to further develop tiny robots that could help clean up oil spills or respond to a terrorist attack.

The robots would zero in on the source of chemical or biological hazards.

“Somebody from the National Science Foundation came out here and said we had the best robotics work he’d ever seen,” Diana Spears said.

Spears and her husband, William, envision robots that would communicate with one another, relaying information back to humans or to a larger robot that would take care of the problem.

“Suppose a terrorist lets out a toxic chemical. You want to send out a swarm of robots to find out where the toxic chemical is and trace it to the source,” Spears said.

A swarm of small robots would cover a larger area more quickly than a single robot, and if one failed, the others could take up the slack.

The robots would travel in a formation based on a theory developed by William Spears.

“Most people are interested in a more ad hoc approach to designing these robots,” graduate student Dimitri Zarzhitsky said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s design a theory for it and validate our theory through experiments.'”

The researchers have begun working on technology that will allow the robots to communicate and detect chemicals. “This will be the first time we’ve been able to complete a project with real-world implications,” Diana Spears said.

They plan to have an operational system in about a year, when they hope to hold demonstrations for the military and others.

Eventually they hope to develop robots that could fly or swim. “When we get our demos going of what our robots can do, that’s going to really wow people,” Spears said.

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