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Dynamic Simulation of Claytronic Ensembles

Visualizing the Invisible While Realizing the Unreal

Long before the first ensemble of a million catoms can be created, the designing of these never-before constructed robotic modules and testing of their performance in real-world conditions must occur.   For this purpose, the research team assembled by Carnegie Mellon and Intel to create claytronics technology, created the Dynamic Physical Rendering Simulator or DPRSim at the Intel Pittsburgh Research Lab on the Carnegie Mellon campus.


A first of its kind software program for the conceptual testing and visualization of multi-thousand robot ensembles, DPRSim operates as a Linux-based system on desktop computers.   It is available as open source software with a tutorial on the website of Intel 's Pittsburgh Lab.   DPRSim has become the primary tool of the Carnegie Mellon-Intel Claytronics Research Project for observing real-time performance when designing, testing and debugging modular robots in claytronic ensembles.  

Demonstrating the validity of claytronics requires extensive observation of cooperative behaviors among nanoscale modular robots.   The research task is made uniquely challenging by the absence of physical prototypes that can serve as demonstration platforms for these tiny devices, which are no larger than a grain of sand.

Between concept and engineering conception, there is the need for extensive trial and error with real devices, and, necessarily, that testing of concept requires very clear representations of a vast number of effects in a tiny world that cannot be directly observed.

Big Window on A Tiny World  

DPRSim provides the bridge between imagination and reality by enabling researchers to create models of claytronic ensembles that operate in a software environment that fully replicates the forces that will affect the behavior of these devices during real world operations.

As a computing platform that is able to run many programs at the same time, DPRSim enables the researcher to program and control the performance of individual catoms.   In effect, the simulator opens a visual window onto the behavior of every tiny module. Thus, it reveals the full complexity of parallel processing in a claytronics ensemble.   In a domain of thusands of active computing nodes, where each individual catom may be running more than one thread of instruction, the DPR simulator provides the means to activate all catoms under real-life conditions.  

Its run-time record captures all ensemble events in both video and text formats, making DPRSim an unusually powerful tool for debugging as well as modelling.   While providing a platform for programming the internal computing capacity of individual catoms, DPRSim incorporates software drivers for physical phenomena such as power flow, magnetics, gravity and friction.     From this performance, DPRSim also captures movies to record its simulations.

Desktop Control for Hundreds of Thousands of Computing Nodes  

Developed to run from desktop (and laptop) computers, DPRSim models the complex interactions of catoms in numbers that simulate the order of magnitude that will be characteristic of operational ensembles (512,000 catoms on a single processor machine or up to a million on parallel processors). Modeling these complex nanoscale behaviors, DPRSim projects a real-time visual display that enables an observer to witness the behavior of the sub-millimeter catoms as they are changing states thorough the complete run of the test.

As it enables researchers to observe and track the performance of algorithms and software programs to control the actions of otherwise unobservable catoms in a claytronics ensemble, DPR Sim has become the essential tool for translating the visionary concept of dynamic, 3-D physical renderings into viable ensembles of millions of nanoscale catoms in the real world. Moreover, a tool that operates with a real-time perpsective on the operating state of every individual unit in the claytronics ensemble, DPRSim offers a version of the dynamic dashboard tools that will integrate the operations of hardware and software in real-life versions of claytronic ensembles.

Publications and Documents

Integrated Debugging of Large Modular Robot Ensembles,
    Benjamin D. Rister, Jason D. Campbell, Padmanabhan Pillai, and Todd C. Mowry. In Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation ICRA '07, April, 2007.