In this paper, we study self-organized flocking in a swarm of mobile robots. We present Kobot, a mobile robot platform developed specifically for swarm robotic studies. We describe its infrared-based short range sensing system, capable of measuring the distance from obstacles and detecting kin robots, and a novel sensing system called the virtual heading system (VHS) which uses a digital compass and a wireless communication module for sensing the relative headings of neighboring robots.
We propose a behavior based on heading alignment and proximal control that is capable of generating self-organized flocking in a swarm of Kobots. By self-organized flocking we mean that a swarm of mobile robots, initially connected via proximal sensing, is able to wander in an environment by moving as a coherent group in open space and to avoid obstacles as if it were a “super-organism”. We propose a number of metrics to evaluate the quality of flocking. We use a default set of behavioral parameter values that can generate acceptable flocking in robots, and analyze the sensitivity of the flocking behavior against changes in each of the parameters using the metrics that were proposed. We show that the proposed behavior can generate flocking in a small group of physical robots in a closed arena as well as in a swarm of 1000 simulated robots in open space. We vary the three main characteristics of the VHS, namely: (1) the amount and nature of noise in the measurement of heading, (2) the number of VHS neighbors, and (3) the range of wireless communication. Our experiments show that the range of communication is the main factor that determines the maximum number of robots that can flock together and that the behavior is highly robust against the other two VHS characteristics. We conclude by discussing this result in the light of related theoretical studies in statistical physics.