James McLurkin

Developed 'swarm' microrobots based on the principles of nature to carry out real-world tasks.

"Understanding nature is the key to unlocking the secrets of intelligence," said MIT graduate student James McLurkin. Intrigued by the behavioral patterns of swarm reproductive labor groups, McLurkin developed 'swarm' microrobots based on the principles of nature to carry out cooperative, real-world tasks. An inventor who has pushed the frontier of microrobotics, McLurkin was named the 2003 winner of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

Measuring 4.5 inches, McLurkin's swarm robots are programmed to emulate the behavior of bees, with capabilities to cluster, disperse, follow and orbit. Equipped with bump sensors, a self-charger, a radio modem and an audio system, they are autonomous yet travel in a fleet. When one robot makes a discovery, it signals the group to execute the task together.

The swarm robots were originally built under a team McLurkin managed at iRobot in Massachusetts. As part of his doctoral research at MIT, McLurkin focused on complex group behavior through continued development of the largest swarm of robots. His research concentrated on writing software to implement behavioral attributes for the swarm and examine how the robots respond to one another, while increasing their collective power. Potential uses of the swarm include organizing groups of 20,000 robots to detect land mines, search through earthquake rubble, or explore Mars.

For McLurkin's undergraduate thesis, he invented 12 cubic-inch robotic ants—the world's smallest self-contained autonomous robots, based on the characteristics of an ant colony. During the project, he kept a large container of ants on his desk to observe their roles and interactions. His robotic ants were programmed to hunt for food, send messages to each other and even play tag.

Inventing since the age of three, McLurkin's inspirations sprung from Lego® bricks, model trains, video games, BMX bicycles and his parents—who were key role models. During the course of his graduate work at MIT, McLurkin stepped into the role model position as a teacher in The Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery Academy (a college preparatory program at MIT). Riding into class on his BMX bike for a physics lesson was one of the many ways he incorporated his favorite toys into activities and demonstrations. According to McLurkin, "It is important that teens truly understand how much fun and exciting inventing can be."

McLurkin received his SB in Electrical Engineering from MIT, his MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and his SM and PhD in computer science from MIT. McLurkin began his post doc at the University of Washington in 2008; he is using probabilistic models for algorithm development. His words of advice to aspiring inventors: "Empowerment and go."