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Canadian students to test robot "swarms" at the University of Montréal

A group of Canadian students supervised by Dr. Giovanni Beltrame at the Polytechnique Montréal will be testing a "swarm" of robots that may some day explore planetary surfaces on the Moon and Mars.

What are robot "swarms" and why are they important?

Robot "swarms" are based on the idea that many robots can work together in the same way as swarms of bees, flocks of birds or schools of fish. Swarm robotics can be hard to predict because they need special programming languages and communication tools.

Recently, swarm robots have become more popular in space exploration because they can cover more ground and accomplish tasks that are not possible with single robots. In addition, a swarm of robots can be more successful because if one component breaks, others can step in. On the Moon or Mars there are no ‘robot repair shops' so it is important to have back up options.

To work well, artificial swarm intelligence, also called ASI or "swarm AI" depends on many factors. According to Dr. Beltrame, robot groups need to be robust and dependable, able to work in parallel and adapt to change. Other key features include decentralized control; no predefined roles and simple, local interactions.

Just like people, robots come in all shapes and sizes with many different abilities

The students' project, Multi-Robot Autonomous Planetary Exploration, is being carried out at the Making Innovative Space Technology (MIST) Lab, which received funding in 2019 via the Canadian Space Agency's Flights and Fieldwork for the Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST) initiative which offers students hands-on experience in space-like missions.

The MIST Lab robot swarms are made up of small independent robots between the size of a shoebox and a microwave oven. The robots come in different forms including some that are shaped like a dog! Other robots shaped like spheres were developed as part of a FAST grant by Dr. David St-Onge at the University of Quebec's École de technologie supérieure (ETS). Each robot offers unique features such as spring-loaded limbs or different skills such as how they take photos, e.g., stereo or LIDAR cameras.

Robot dogs are great at sniffing things out and exploring their environment

Robot dogs like 'Spot,' introduced in by Boston Dynamics, have won the hearts of technology fans all over the world. It makes a lot of sense to design and use robots shaped like dogs. After all, they have evolved over thousands of years to be more agile and can quickly move around and explore difficult terrains. It's not surprising that "Rover" is such a popular name in space exploration!

The eventual goal of the MIST Lab Project is to send robot swarms 20 to 30 metres under the surface of the Moon to take pictures and map the inside of underground passages called lava tubes. These tubes are believed to have been formed by lava which flowed under the Moon's surface and drained away, forming a hollow void. Once they are dropped underground, the robots jump around and organize, forming a local network to explore and construct a map. While they work, the robots arrange themselves to suit their location, data quality and network connection.

The MIST Lab team with their robotic swarm (Credit: Caroline Perron)

How do robot swarms decide who does what? And what if they disagree?

"Consensus is the key to coordinate group behaviour. That is the entirety of our work–to generate behaviours based on consensus."

Dr. Giovani Beltrame, MIST Lab

While underground, the robots work in a democracy. They will vote on who does what by bidding on tasks based on their skill set, power level, ability to navigate, distance they can travel, etc. The highest bid will win. This system is somewhat similar to that used by air traffic controllers and companies such as Uber who coordinate independent drivers and vehicles.

Like humans, robots don't always agree on how to get the job done. In space, with limited time available we need a way to resolve conflicts. If this happens, different options will be used to decide who wins such as random selection or a pre-set number.

Testing robot swarms is challenging but extremely important

A student operates a robot swarm (Credit: Martin Primeau, )

Reliable robot-to-operator contact is essential during multi-robot missions. This becomes difficult when communication links are weak or intermittent. MIST Lab will bring the robots to a remote location where they will organize to complete basic tasks. While they work, the humans who operate them will be monitored to collect data about how much they can manage at once. The experiment will test different types of operators using a virtual reality headset to measure pupil dilation, skin conductivity and heart rate. MIST Lab has worked with Dr. Emily B.J. Coffey, a psychology professor from Concordia University who has advised on the psychological aspects of this work.

The MIST Lab Project was selected to participate in the International IGLUNA Platform in Switzerland but unfortunately, they were unable to participate during the COVID pandemic.

Opening up new possibilities for space exploration

Dr. Pierre Allard is a robotics engineer at the Canadian Space Agency. He points out that robot swarms offer interesting possibilities to explore space that have not been possible in the past: "Canada is well positioned in AI and has a good history of using space robotics such as the Canadarm and Canadarm2 and Dextre on the International Space Station. Also, projects such MIST Lab inspire young students who are our next generation of space explorers and who will carry out future missions to the Moon and Mars."

Robot swarms are important on Earth, too!

Understanding swarm AI can help us on Earth in situations where small, agile robots are useful. They can be sent into dangerous places to find and rescue survivors from collapsed buildings or even buildings that are on fire. They could also be useful in agricultural settings to find and treat crop damage and even find birds nests in fields to allow farmers to plow around them; or by archeologists exploring underground sites.

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