In elementary school, James McLurkin wanted only to play. Often his teachers shook their heads, thinking he’d never do anything constructive.

But the 30-year-old doctoral student surprised them all recently when he won $30,000 and the Lemelson- MIT Student Prize for Inventiveness for designing a swarm of robots that might be the first step toward one day patrolling for landmines, rummaging through earthquake rubble, or exploring other planets.

McLurkin, a Baldwin, N.Y. native, built 118 robots – which measure five inches on a side and communicate with the same technology in a TV remote control – that he hopes might one day perform tasks too dirty, too dangerous, or too dull for people. His invention is the largest fleet of autonomous robots that ever has worked together.

The son of a speech therapist and a manager, McLurkin is an expert in the field of microrobotics. Part of his research involves developing algorithms and techniques for programming a group of autonomous robots to mimic the behaviors of bees, specifically their ability to cluster, disperse, and follow the leader. Each robot was built to do individual tasks that support the overall objective of the group.

“Hands down, the best engineer that we know is nature,” McLurkin says. “People don’t even come close. By looking at what natural systems do and how they work, how they arrange themselves, how they communicate, and how they do the amazing things they do, can lead us down paths we might not have taken with a classical engineering background.”

McLurkin was a boy when he first became interested in natural systems. His parents often watched PBS nature specials, and he watched with them. By observing the behaviors of bees and termites, eventually he developed deep insight into the principles of nature. Later, as an MIT student, McLurkin kept a large ant farm on his desk to study how the insects interact, communicate, and perform tasks.

“Nature is brilliant. There’s nothing that compares with its achievements. Understanding nature is the key to unlocking the secrets of intelligence,” says McLurkin, who built his robots to mimic the ants’ behavior.

In 1994, he earned an MIT degree in electrical engineering and computer science, then added a master’s from the University of California Berkeley in electrical engineering, and is now at MIT pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science.

Inventing Early

McLurkin was first interested in invention at age seven, when he tried to launch a flaming airplane, then built a monorail train of Lego bricks, and transformed toy cars into remote control robots.

Before he graduated from high school, he already had programmed his own video games, taken apart and put together his BMX bicycle, and assembled a computer. As a high school junior, he invented his first robot.

Later, as an MIT undergrad, he built a dozen cubic-inch robots that simulated the behavior of an ant colony. Those robotic ants are now showcased in Invention at Play, an interactive, traveling museum exhibit that was first shown at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“James is a clever and inspired inventor,” says Rodney Brooks, director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In a letter recommending McLurkin for the Lemelson-MIT prize, Brooks wrote: “In the future, the world will be full of teams of mobile robots and will all trace their ancestry to those developed by James McLurkin while still a student at MIT.”

McLurkin is now developing models for big communities of autonomous robots. For four years, as lead scientist at iRobot of Burlington, Ma., an MIT spinoff company, he led a research team that built dozens of small robots with the ability to communicate with each other, compute their positions, and use touch-sensing to navigate.

His latest project also sprang from observing the workings of nature. McLurkin recently designed the Swarm Orchestra, 30 robots that play music together. For a holiday concert, the robots played Carol of the Bells and other holiday songs. He says that by combining bee behaviors with artificial behaviors like temporal synchronization and organizing them into groups, his robots can play a wide range of music. Next, he hopes to create a robotic marching band.

Meaningful and Fun

“My goal is to develop a swarm of robots that are scientific, meaningful, and fun. If you’re in grad school and you’re not doing something that inspires you, you’ve made a bad career choice.”

McLurkin also teaches engineering to high school students preparing for college. To engage students, he gives lectures on his skateboard or from his bicycle, and sometimes he uses toys, Lego bricks, and model airplanes to get across his point. It is, he says, a sure way to capture the interest and imagination of even an uninspired student.

“My teachers always said I didn’t work up to my potential,” he says. “What they didn’t realize is that I was just bored.”