Shaping robot swarms through morphogenesis and interactive engagement with society

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Morphogenesis is the process of development of a fully functional biological organism through the spatial self-organisation of millions of cells. The field of morphogenetic engineering takes inspiration from morphogenesis in nature to program self-organised shape formation into functional structures composed of multiple robots to provide them with the high degree of adaptability and robustness seen in biological systems. This would be particularly useful for application areas such as urban search and rescue (to explore a building on fire), utilities inspection (to detect cracks), or nanomedicine (to fight cancer cells), for example.

By taking inspiration from developmental mechanisms discovered in multi-cellular organisms, and building on previous work in the swarm robotics literature, I show the first demonstration of completely self-organised, controllable and functional morphogenesis in large swarms of real, simple robots. A total of 25 experiments with swarms of 300 Kilobots and over 2000 simulations were performed to show the emergent, adaptable and robust shape formation behaviour of robot swarms without the use of any map of the shapes to form, coordinate system or preprogrammed seed robots.

In this thesis, I also show how interactive user and public engagement can have mutual benefits for swarm robotics researchers and society. In particular, two formal studies were carried out. The first study engaged a total of 23 participants from fire brigades through focus groups following the methodology of mutual shaping. In the second study, an educational escape room and group discussion session were developed to engage a total of 52 participants from the general public into the field of swarm robotics and the research done in this thesis. The insight provided by these two studies informs swarm robotics researchers about what needs to be done for robot swarms to be successful and beneficial for society.
Date of Award29 Sep 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SponsorsEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
SupervisorSabine Hauert (Supervisor), Luca Giuggioli (Supervisor), Alan Winfield (Supervisor), James Sharpe (Supervisor) & Arthur G Richards (Supervisor)

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