The US Navy is looking to develop a swarm of odor-sniffing robots to help assemble and load some of its most dangerous weaponry. As Wired reports, these semi-automated robots would act almost like mechanized ants, with "leader" and "follower" bots loading 1,000-pound bombs into tight spaces aboard aircraft carriers. A human-controlled leader robot would lead the procession, with its automated followers trailing behind.
The key ingredient to the Navy's proposal is an as-yet unidentified chemical that could act as a pheromone. Once this chemical is identified, the Navy would need a system capable of embedding and reading data within the pheromone, which would be disseminated by the lead robot. The followers would need to be able to pick up on this pheromone, decode its data, and execute orders dictating speed, formation, and direction.
Creating order out of smell
The exact science behind this pheromone remains unclear — that's why the Navy is asking its defense partners for help — but Wired points out that researchers may draw inspiration from Swiss scientists who in 2010, used "virtual" pheromones to coordinate swarms of aerial drones. The work itself, however, may prove even more challenging than the science behind it. Because the Navy's robot swarm will be carrying bombs from well below the waterline all the way up to a ship's deck, they'll need to withstand temperatures of 200 degrees Fahrenheit, rough sea winds, and contact with petroleum products — all while keeping their signals from crossing with other robots.
At this point, the initiative is only in its nascent phase and there's no timeline for launch, but the Navy says its proposal could offer an "elegant alternative" to other, more costly solutions — including, of course, human labor.