At EPFL, Mother Nature meets the motherboard

An automated grasshopper, a gyroscope that allows a robotic cricket to balance itself before bouncing again and again, a small glider that flies and clings to walls like a flying squirrel… When Mirko Kovac is displaying his ultra-light robots in the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS) at the EPFL, it almost feels like standing in front of one of Alexander Calder’s graceful wire mobiles. Perhaps that’s because these tiny automatons, so different from the bulky and complex androids of Star Wars, take their inspiration from nature itself.

The bio-inspired approach is one of the most promising avenues in robotics today, with the EPFL’s pioneering researchers leading the way. Apart from the LIS, three other EPFL laboratories* are drawing inspiration from biology to design new robots. And since December 2010 all four have come together in a new dedicated robotics centre. Within two years they will even have their own building on the Lausanne campus. Four-year funding

Official recognition came in April 2010 with a four-year grant of CHF 13.3 million (€10 million) for a National Centre of Competence in Research (or NCCR, the leading program of the Swiss National Science Foundation), matched with CHF 6.9 million from the EPFL itself. The centre, known as NCCR Robotics, includes partners such as the ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and the artificial intelligence institute IDSIA, and will be led by Lausanne. NCCR Robotics will begin with 17 leading researchers. However once the centre is fully operational the headcount should reach 80 to 100 experts, including PhD students, postdocs and new professors.

The NCCR’s mission (see the article below) will be broader than just bio-robotics, but its creation underlines the exceptional potential of bio-inspired robotics in Western Switzerland. Instead of trying to program a set of complex functions – walking, vision, anticipation and so on– in a one-off human-looking android, biomimetic scientists like Mirko Kovac are betting on basic and cheap robots that can adapt as well as cooperate. “You may build a ten-kilogramme robot to carry out a specific task. But when it breaks down, it is all over. The alternative is to create a thousand microrobots weighing only ten grammes. Even if half of them fail, the assignment will go on,” Kovac explains.

Behind Mirko Kovac’s technological developments, there is Dario Floreano’s breakthrough research. The director of the LIS, Floreano drew inspiration from nature to program his robots. He began with creating really basic building blocks of software. Progressively, these different bits of software mix and are selected in an almost Darwinian way. At a certain point during this evolution, a kind of intelligence (known as artificial life) emerged. Learning through a process of trial and error, the robot managed to pick the software combination most suited to its particular task – a bit like genes combining to regulate specific biological functions. Floreano’s “evolutionary robotics” is currently focusing on the evolutionary synthesis of analogue electrical circuits, neural controllers that learn, the reverse engineering of genetic and metabolic networks, and biomedical signal processing.

But when robots work together, artificial intelligence reveals itself still further. Floreano and his team looked into the living organisms whose efficiency also emanated from combined intelligence – insects. This led them to collaborate with Laurent Keller, the renowned entomologist and ant specialist from Lausanne University (UNIL).

”What we notice with insects is that part of their intelligence actually lies in their body,” explains Jean-Christophe Zufferey, Floreano’s senior assistant. With this in mind, the researchers began to study the biomechanical properties of insects and then applied these properties to their robots. For instance, the Airburr project takes advantage of the principles behind the insect’s exoskeleton to create a collision-resistant flying robot.




Animats Roboticians  take their inspiration from animals such as gecko, fly or salamander.



Useful insects

A passionate pilot and Swiss aerobatic champion, Zufferey created a miniature plane that imitates a fly. Weighing less than 10 grammes, the robot replicates the main sensors that allow a fly to avoid obstacles. “A camera mimics the fly’s compound eye, inertial sensors its sense of direction and a micro-anemometer its hairs, which can sense the airflow,” he says. The result is a micro-plane that can fly autonomously.

Late in 2009 the EPFL’s success in bio-inspired robotics led to an economic milestone when Zufferey created a spin-off company called senseFly to market the Swinglet, a mini-drone that can monitor agricultural fields as well as sensitive industrial sites. He also uses a swarm of mini-drones to generate a temporary WiFi network – which could be vital to rescuers at a disaster site when all the traditional communication infrastructures are down.

Mirko Kovac is also looking into emergencies and the surveillance of sensitive sites, using a swarm of robot-crickets that can jump 60 centimetres in the air to locate their whereabouts, and get their balance back before bouncing again. The swarm could be deployed to look for victims at an earthquake site, or give warnings about the spread of a forest fire. Because they can adapt to the natural environment but also see, sense and communicate, swarms of bio-inspired robots are probably more likely to become a practical proposition than the complex and energy-demanding C3PO-like androids.



Human oriented robotics

The new National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) “Robotics – Intelligent Robots for Improving the Quality of Life” encompasses a promising field of engineering which aims to develop new and human-oriented robotic technology to benefit society as a whole. According to its director, Dario Floreano, «in the near future, intelligent robots will play an important role in improving quality of life. For example, “care robots” will help elderly people stay in their familiar surroundings for longer; “neuroprosthetic” and “exoprosthetic” robots will increase the mobility and autonomy of people with disabilities; “educational robots” will support the training of a new generation of scientists and engineers; “environmental robots” will keep our world cleaner and safer.» 


* LASA – Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory, managed by Professor Aude Billard; DISAL – Distributed Intelligent Systems and Algorithms Laboratory, led by Professor Alcherio Martinoli; and BioRob – the Biorobotics Laboratory, run by Auke Ijspeert.

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