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January 27, 2005

James McLurkin

James McLurkin is a daring innovator who has helped to push the frontiers of microrobotics. Awarded the prestigious Lemelson-M.I.T. Student Prize, his inventions range from a tiny self-contained autonomous robot that was the smallest in the world at the time—named Goliath, it measured a little over one inch per side—to his current research project: constructing the largest fleet of autonomous robots that have ever worked together to carry out cooperative, real-world tasks.

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

The implications of McLurkin’s groundbreaking work are far-reaching—from clearing fields of land mines to searching for survivors in the aftermath of a natural disaster to mapping the surface of Mars. With his initiative, creativity and extraordinary inventiveness, McLurkin is a natural speaker and educator. At the podium, he discusses the possibilities of robotic research and the future of his swarm robots, and, for younger audiences, illustrates the fun in inventing and engineering.

Inventing since the age of three, McLurkin’s inspirations came from Lego bricks, model trains, video games, BMX bicycles and his parents—who were key role models. He is now a role model to many as a teacher in The Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery Academy at M.I.T. (a college preparatory program).

A Long Island, New York native, McLurkin went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering. He received his master’s degree in electical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in computer science, also at M.I.T. Since 1999, McLurkin has also worked as the lead scientist and manager for the Swarm Robotics Project at iRobot in Burlington, MA, developing algorithms for large communities of autonomous robots.

As an undergraduate at M.I.T., McLurkin built twelve cubic-inch robots and programmed them to simulate the behavior of an ant colony. His robotic ants are currently featured as part of Invention at Play, an interactive traveling exhibit that focuses on the similarities between the way children play and the creative processes used by innovators in science and technology.

Posted by mbowen at January 27, 2005 11:48 AM

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