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Scientists have created a swarm of over a thousand coin-sized robots that can assemble themselves into two-dimensional shapes by communicating with their neighbours.

At 1,024 members, this man-made flock — described in the 15 August issue of Science1 — is the largest yet to demonstrate collective behaviour. The self-organization techniques used by the tiny machines could aid the development of 'transformer' robots that reconfigure themselves, researchers say, and they might shed light on how complex swarms form in nature.

The puck-shaped robots, called Kilobots, cost roughly US$20 each and are programmed with a simple set of rules and an image of the shape to be formed. To begin with, the robots are arranged in a tightly packed, arbitrary shape on a flat surface. Then four 'seed robots' are placed in a cluster next to the swarm, and the robots on the far side of the pack begin to inch around the edge of the formation towards the seeds, propelled by motors that make them vibrate like ringing mobile phones.

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