The ability to use teams of robots in interesting, real-world tasks such as exploration, reconnaissance, and search and rescue depends on their ability to effectively cooperate in complex and dynamic environments. Observations from nature and personal experience show that leadership can have a significant positive impact in the coordination and performance of a team. However, current processes for selecting leaders in teams of robots are either unable to adapt to changes to team membership or require significant time and effort to do so. In contrast, research in the biological sciences has shown that systems with leaders that emerge by way of internal motivation, and not external communication, are able to adapt to changes in team membership in complex and dynamic environments. In these systems, leaders are thought of more as "initiators of action" rather than "managers" that direct other individuals.
In this project, the researchers will use these insights into biological systems to investigate the motivations and mechanisms that contribute to the emergence of not only a single leader, but to the emergence of a hierarchy of leaders in a team of robots. Potential motivations and mechanisms will be evaluated in simulations of common team-based robot tasks that require cooperation and coordination of the individual robots. An understanding of the emergence process will enable roboticists to use teams of robots in tasks for which their use is currently impractical. Furthermore, this project will also increase the body of knowledge in the life sciences by providing a theoretical foundation on which further biological experiments can be based. The combination of these contributions is transformative not only for the practical impact it will have on the ability to design multi-robot systems that benefit from improved coordination and cooperation, but also for its impact on our fundamental understanding of what facilitates the emergence of organized leadership structures.