Nikolaus Correll, Assistant Professor at University of Colorado Boulder said if one robot can accomplish a singular task, think how much more could be accomplished if you had hundreds of them.
Correll and his research team developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems.
The team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a pingpong ball, which they call "droplets". When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a "liquid that thinks".
Similar to the fictional "nanomorphs" depicted in the "Terminator" films, large swarms of intelligent robotic devices could be used for a range of tasks.
Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space, Correll said.
Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviours such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change.
These behaviours could then be transferred to large swarms for water or air-based tasks. Correll hopes to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviours such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.
Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems.
"Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells. Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonise space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers," he said.