There’s a Georgia Tech robotics lab so popular, its hallway viewing window could use a dedicated cleaner. “My students complain every morning that they have to wipe nose prints off the window because people are up against it, seeing these robots do stuff,” says Magnus Egerstedt, founder of the Robotarium lab.
That visible nature is exactly the point. The Robotarium is an open-access lab with swarm robots, or robots in large quantities. Palm-sized robots roll—and plate-sized ones fly—over a bowl-shaped, 12-by-14-foot white table in the middle of the room. And anyone in the world can remotely run experiments on the lab’s 100 ground and 20 flying robots, simply by uploading code to the Robotarium’s website.
The 725-square-foot lab, which can attract as many as 100 spectators during public tours, occupies a central place at Georgia Tech in the Van Leer Building. “I really wanted it to be a shining beacon of robotic awesomeness in the middle of campus,” says Egerstedt, executive director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.
Egerstedt, who built the Robotarium with two grants totaling $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research, knows that labs require money, which makes research difficult for would-be roboticists lacking resources. The Robotarium gives everyone access. “If you have a good idea that you want to test in the swarm robotics domain, you should be allowed to test it,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to raise many millions of dollars and build a lab and then test it.”
Since the Robotarium went live in August 2017, more than 250 groups from every continent but Antarctica have used it. Researchers from De Montfort University in Leicester, England, studied ethical problems with robots, and University of Arizona students analyzed how ants select their queen. Girl Scout troops and high schoolers practicing computer programming have also visited.
The Robotarium made experimentation possible for Yunus Emre Sahin, a University of Michigan graduate student. He studies algorithms used by robots during emergencies—for example, teaching robots how to survey a disaster area after an earthquake without individually controlling them. “Seeing the robots performing the tasks that I gave them was an inspiration for me,” Sahin says. “You see physical evidence that your work actually is correct.”
Don’t have an advanced science degree? Egerstedt wants to democratize the Robotarium even further. The lab is developing ways for laypeople to engage with the technology. “You don’t have to know how to control robots,” Egerstedt says. “You just tell them, ‘Hey, go here or go there.’”
And with the open-door policy, he hopes the Robotarium inspires other industries—such as traffic monitoring and precision agriculture—to make experimentation more accessible.
Take a tour
Tours of the Robotarium are from 2-3 p.m. every other Friday at Georgia Tech, Van Leer Building, room 261. For more info or to sign up for a tour, contact Sean Wilson at email@example.com.
This article appears in our July 2018 issue.