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Laws of nature

Social insects provide insight for multi-robot system developers


By Jackey Locke

While it may seem a little odd for an engineering professor to have an academic interest in ants and bees, Dr. Andrew Vardy is quick to point out that engineers can learn a lot from the insects.

“They are interesting as inspirations to engineers because of how their colonies function,” he said.

Social insect colonies are fault-tolerant, which means they can survive even if some individual members get sick or die, they are scalable, which means they have the capacity to continue even while the number of members go up or down, and they are adaptable, which means members can change their behavior in response to a changing environment.

Natural structures

“Current robot technology is generally not fault-tolerant, scalable or adaptive,” said Dr. Vardy, who is joint appointed with the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Faculty of Science’s Department of Computer Science. “So, it seems that robotics can learn a lot from the social insects.”

Dr. Vardy’s main research area is called swarm robotics. Swarm robotics concerns the development of multi-robot systems inspired by the social insects that live together in colonies and build incredibly sophisticated structures given their limited individual capabilities.

One recent outcome of his research is an improved algorithm for swarms of simple robots to sort objects. This is tested by deploying robots in an environment containing a random distribution of coloured pucks.

Robots sort pucks in Dr. Andrew Vardy's BOTS lab.
Robots sort pucks in Dr. Andrew Vardy’s BOTS lab at Memorial University.
Photo: David Howells

“The robots have cameras to detect and classify the pucks, as well as to sense other robots, and apply relatively simple control laws to sort the pucks by colour,” he said. “For example, a simple controller picks up isolated pucks and puts them down next to clusters of pucks of the same colour. But, we can go further by remembering locations and programming the robots to return to previously visited clusters of pucks.”

In contrast to previous work, these robots can remember places within their environment and return to them, similar to how bees and ants behave.

Future of recycling

Ultimately, Dr. Vardy says the intended application is recycling. Instead of a large dedicated recycling facility, such as the one in Robin Hood Bay in St. John’s, swarms of robots would be applied to sort out different types of plastic and metal containers. He says the inspiration from insects leads to a scalable system, which means the concept can be applied in large or small communities.

“This is quite relevant in Newfoundland and Labrador where there are many small, remote communities. The remoteness of these communities is often a barrier to the use of traditional recycling methods.”

Dr. Vardy says one of his students is programming robots to form into moving patterns, sweeping across an environment, such as the seabed, and capturing images. Another is looking at how a single human can control a whole swarm of semi-autonomous robots.

No. 1 goal

The main purpose of the research is to program swarms of robots to modify the environment. Now that the puck-sorting robots have been tested, the researchers want to move on to building structures with robots.

“One of my students is programming robots to re-shape terrain by driving across it. We want to take inspiration from insects that modify their environments to help support their colonies. Ultimately, we want to develop robot swarms that can help us clean up and re-shape our environment.”

More details about the research are available here.

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