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This swarm of robot submersibles can be controlled as a single entity

As swarm robotics advances, we're seeing the first commercial implementations in water

Aquabotix, which makes unmanned underwater vehicles, is commercializing swarm robots.

The company's latest offering is a small vessel that operates on the surface or underwater. Paired with additional units, the robots can be controlled in a swarm by a single operator as if they were an individual entity.

Swarm robotics has long been a promising field of research in robotics labs. That's because swarms offer a number of potential advantages over individual robots.

Sensors distributed across a swarm could cover more territory than an individual robot. Damage to one portion of a swarm doesn't drastically reduce operational ability, making swarms an attractive alternative to expensive robot platforms that would need to be pulled out of the field when they sustain damage.

A team from the Free University of Brussels recently made a robot capable of working with its siblings to form a larger robot, potentially point toward a future of highly-adaptable, task-agnostic machines that can grow or shrink to suit an application.

MIT and Harvard have been studying ways to simplify robotic controls by giving robots the same swarm behavioral instincts many insects and fish possess. Swarming animals manage to reduce complex group behavior to simple individual commands.

The military, too, has been developing swarming drones, which would be difficult to defend against.

Cost is a huge driver of all these efforts. It's simply cheaper in many applications to deploy a bunch of small robots with various sensors that can work together than it is to create a sophisticated platform with a payload of integrated sensors.

The swarming vehicles from Aquabotix are about two-and-a-half feet long and can move long the surface of a body of water or dive on command up to 50 meters.

The vehicles can be used in a number of data-gathering operations, such as marine ecological surveys, and sensor packages can be customized based on application.

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"Until today, there were simply no micro hybrid [surface and underwater] vehicles and no swarming unmanned vehicles with diving capabilities commercially available in the industry," said Whitney Million, Aquabotix's Chief Executive Officer.

As illustrated in the embedded video, the drones can operate in multiple formations and can handle surf.

The primary applications are research and defense.