Researchers participating in the the Symbiotic Evolutionary Robot Organisms project ("Symbrion") are investigating how swarms of miniature robots can work and evolve together. The ultimate goal of the project is to understand the principles that govern how robots can form themselves into a single artificial organism. The technique enables them to interact collectively with the physical world, and might ultimately be applied to real-world tasks such as rescuing earthquake victims.
"Multi-robot organisms" are made up of large swarms of individual robots, each slightly larger than a sugar cube, which work together to form a single artificial life-form. The organisms are able to share information and energy with one another, and to manage their own hardware and software. When the robots join together into a single organism, each robot will be able to share crucial information with others, creating an overall system which can evolve in the face of new problems -- just as a natural immune system is able to cope with unfamiliar pathogens.
According to Jon Timmis, who along with Andy Tyrrell of the Intelligent Systems Group in the Department of Electronics is leading the at University of York's efforts for the project "this is an increasingly important area of research. We may be able to use the collaborative power of many robots in situations where human intervention isn't possible. For instance, a Symbrion swarm could be released into a collapsed building following an earthquake, and form themselves into teams to lift rubble or search for survivors."
The University of York and the University of the West of England are among 10 international partners. York's role is to develop an artificial immune system which can protect both the individual robots and the larger collective organism. The project is funded internationally by the European Union as part of the Future Emerging Technologies programme.
"This kind of thing is clearly a long way from being realized," said Timmis, "but work in this project will allow us to start building the robots of the future."