There have been many attempts to create a robotic swarm, however, before the SOMA Project, creating an inexpensive and scalable full-featured swarm had not yet been achieved. Each of the robots we made costs less than one thousand dollars, has space for hardware expansion, and is designed for scalability. The minimum functionality of the swarm we set out to make was to build a map of obstacles in an environment and position themselves in a map. The ability for each robot to know where it has been and know where its going allows for further study in mobile and ad-hoc networking, complex searching algorithms, and search and rescue applications.
This project is quite complicated, so it should only be attempted if you are already familiar with assembling and debugging electronics. You will need access to a full computer engineering lab with all standard assembly and test equipment as well as substantial mechanical equipment: a machine shop and a laser cutter. Since this is a difficult project, it will be assumed that the reader is experienced working with electronics and machining equipment. As much detail as possible will be covered, but the very basics, like how to solder and how to keep all your fingers when working with a laser cutter and lathe, will not be covered in this Instructable.
We hope that anyone who attempts to build these robots has as much fun as we did.
-The SOMA Team
More information is located at http://www.thesomaproject.net
Step 1: Assembling The Team
A long time ago, in a computer engineering lab far, far away, six computer engineers banded together to tackle what we were told was the impossible: a robot swarm. In January of the year 2007, each eventual teammate surfaced from the depths of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering atop the UC Santa Cruz campus, each bringing a crucial skill to what would become the SOMA Project. John and Erik brought the crazy, but two very different kinds: John the slow and methodical crazy that results in tiny 0402 components scattered across a board that would be soldered by hand, and Erik the instant-crazy that makes circuit boards round and espresso machines tremble. Thom came next, better than the CS kids in front of a keyboard and faster than the autoset button on an oscilloscope. Sean arrived, everyone's source of neverending entertainment and the only one brave enough take on the RF communication--of whatever project we would come to choose. Andrew, the SolidWorks pro and lover of laser-cut acrylic fumes, agreed to model, remodel, and cut whatever it would take to make some robots. Finally: Rachel... the fearless leader, with more crazy than John and Erik combined, braver than Sean, and the only engineer in the entire school that would agree to be the team leader of this unruly bunch. They knew they wanted to do something with robotics, but didn't know exactly what their goal would be, or just how many robots they were going to make... After whiteboards had been filled with scribbles, sketches, and countless question marks, the team decided on making a Swarm of Mapping Automatons, and the SOMA Project was born.