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‘Who’ knew?

Doctor Who writer inspired by professor's swarm robotics research


By Kelly Foss

This weekend’s episode of the long-running hit British television show, Doctor Who, will have a special connection to one Memorial University researcher.

The season’s second episode, titled Smile, will see “The Doctor” taking his newest companion, Bill, to the colony world of Gliese 581 D, a bright, sunny world tended to by a swarm of tiny bird-like robots called Vardies and their user interface, the Emojibots.

The Vardies, it just so happens, are named for Dr. Andrew Vardy, a professor jointly appointed with the faculties of Science and Engineering and Applied Science.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce, an English screenwriter, novelist and actor, wrote the episode and, by way of a 2013 conference in Italy, became friends with Dr. Vardy.

“Frank and I were paired up to contribute to a book called Beta Life,” he explained. “Frank wrote a short story for this book based on some ideas of mine and the story was actually named for my dog. We kept in touch and I guess he wanted to give me some credit for the swarm of robots that will appear in this Doctor Who episode.”

Real-life inspiration

It’s not hard to see the connection. Dr. Vardy’s main research area, swarm robotics, concerns the development of multi-robot systems inspired by social insects.

Social insects such as ants and bees work together to find food, build their nests and solve all sorts of problems — all without any one insect being in charge. One recent outcome of Dr. Vardy’s research is an improved algorithm for swarms of robots to sort objects.

Dr. Andrew Vardy with robots
Dr. Andrew Vardy demonstrates his puck sorting robots in his BOTS lab at Memorial.
Photo: David Howells

This is tested by deploying the robots in an environment containing a random distribution of coloured pucks. The robots sort the pucks into clusters, a process Dr. Vardy would like to extend to recyclable materials. He is also working on the ability of a set of robots to form structures like walls and enclosures.

In addition to the Dr. Who episode, Mr. Cottrell-Boyce has written a previous episode, In the Forest of the Night, as well as episodes of Coronation Street, feature films and the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. He was once praised by Roger Ebert as being one of the few truly inventive modern-day screenwriters.

His episode of Doctor Who airs Saturday, April 22, at 10:30 p.m. on Space.

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