The four year Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE) project sees the Bristol Robotics Lab (BRL) working with the University of York, Edinburgh Napier and the Free University of Amsterdam as well as R&D lab EPFL in Zurich and NASA’s Jet propulsion Lab.
The project will develop a demonstrator that 3D prints and assembles complete robots and then trains them in a ‘nursery’ then testing them in a mock nuclear plant. The whole process is fully automatic, allowing the designs to evolve.
“We've been trying to win support for this project for five years or so, and only now succeeded. This is a project that we've been thinking, and writing about, for a long time - so to have the opportunity to try out our ideas for real is wonderful,” said Alan Winfield, professor of robot ethics at the University of the West of England which hosts BRL.
BRL is developing of a purpose designed 3D printing system, which it calls a ‘birth clinic’, to print small mobile robots. This will need to pick and place a number of pre designed and fabricated electronics, sensing and actuation modules into the printing work area which will be over printed with hot plastic to form the complete robot.
After testing in the mock reactor, the designs of the most effective robots will be combined to create the next generation of ‘child' robots. Even with 3D printing this is a slow and resource hungry process, says Winfield, so the project is also running a parallel process of simulated evolution in a virtual environment developed at York along with the algorithms for evolving the designs so that the real world environment is used to calibrate the virtual world.
A hybrid real-virtual process under the control of ecosystem manager software developed at Napier will allow real and virtual robots to combine, and the resulting child robots to be printed and tested in either the virtual or real environments.