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Researchers devise means for creating controlled coordinated swarming

Posted November 8, 2013
Researchers devise means for creating controlled coordinated swarming
A superimposed picture of the collision between two swarms composed of thousands of colloidal rollers. Credit: Denis Bartolo, Antoine Bricard and Nicolas Desreumaux
A team of researchers from several facilities in France has devised a means for modeling coordinated swarming behavior in a controlled environment. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the team describes their experiment and how it might impact future research efforts.

Humans have noted coordinated swarming in its natural state for most of history—members of flocks of birds or schools of fish change direction individually, simultaneously without any obvious control mechanism. Scientists have sought to better understand such behavior to learn more about how such systems work in smaller environment such as those made of bacteria. Also, understanding how it works might help engineers build robotic systems able to accomplish the same feats. Holding things up, however, has been an inability to create a replicable model of the behavior in a controlled environment. Now, it appears, the team in France has done just that.

The environment they created was very simple—they added very tiny plastic balls to a water solution, then poured the results into a racetrack shaped (oval) enclosure. A clear lid was then placed on the enclosure to allow for observing what occurred inside. To get the balls moving the researchers applied a small electric charge. Doing so caused chaotic movement at first, but as time passed, the researchers observed that the balls formed a swarm that moved around the track as a single entity. Closer observation revealed that the swarm that developed was also homogeneous; the balls were somehow able to create and maintain rules of swarm behavior that allowed for seamless movement around the racetrack.

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