Enter the maze

Sabine Hauert: Swarm Engineer

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Based on a 2016 talk by Sabine Hauert at the Royal Society

A flock of birds copyright www.istock.com 000002906381

Sabine Hauert is a swarm engineer. She is fascinated by the idea of making use of swarms of robots. Watch a flock of birds and you see that they have both complex and beautiful behaviours. It helps them avoid predators very effectively, for example, so much so that many animals behave in a similar way. Predators struggle to fix on any one bird in all the chaotic swirling. Sabine's team at the University of Bristol are exploring how we can solve our own engineering problems: from providing communication networks in a disaster zone to helping treat cancer, all based on the behaviours of swarms of animals.

Sabine realised that flocks of birds have properties that are really interesting to an engineer. Their ability to scale is one. It is often easy to come up with solutions to problems that work in a small 'toy' system, but when you want to use it for real, the size of the problem defeats you. With a flock, birds just keep arriving, and the flock keeps working, getting bigger and bigger. It is common to see thousands of Starlings behaving like this - around Brighton Pier most winter evenings, for example. Flocks can even be of millions of birds all swooping and swirling together, never colliding, always staying as a flock. It is an engineering solution that scales up to massive problems. If you can build a system to work like a flock, you will have a similar ability to scale.

Flocks of birds are also very robust. If one bird falls out of the sky, perhaps because it is caught by a predator, the flock itself doesn't fail, it continues as if nothing happened. Compare that to most systems humans create. Remove one component from a car engine and it's likely that you won't be going anywhere. This kind of robustness from failure is often really important.

Swarms are an example of emergent behaviour. If you look at just one bird you can't tell how the flock works as a whole. In fact, each is just following very simple rules. Each bird just tracks the positions of a few nearest neighbours using that information to make simple decisions about how to move. That is enough for the whole complex behaviour of the flock to emerge. Despite all that fast and furious movement, the birds never crash into each other. Fascinated, Sabine started to explore how swarms of robots might be used to solve problems for people.

Her first idea was to create swarms of flying robots to work as a communications network, providing wi-fi coverage in places it would otherwise be hard to set up a network. This might be a good solution in a disaster area, for example, where there is no other infrastructure, but communication is vital. You want it to scale over the whole disaster area quickly and easily, and it has to be robust. She set about creating a system to achieve this.

The robots she designed were very simple, fixed wing, propellor-powered model planes. Each had a compass so it knew which direction it was pointing and was able to talk to those nearest using wi-fi signals. It could also tell who its nearest neighbours were. The trick was to work out how to design the behaviour of one bird so that appropriate swarming behaviour emerged. At any time each had to decide how much to turn to avoid crashing into another but to maintain the flock, and coverage. You could try to work out the best rules by hand. Instead, Sabine turned to machine learning.

The idea of machine learning is that instead of trying to devise algorithms that solve problems yourself, you write an algorithm for how to learn. The program then learns for itself by trial and error the best solution. Sabine created a simple first program for her robots that gave them fairly random behaviour. The machine learning program then used a process modelled on evolution to gradually improve. After all evolution worked for animals! The way this is done is that variations on the initial behaviour are trialled in simulators and only the most successful are kept. Further random changes are made to those and the new versions trialled again. This is continued over thousands of generations, each generation getting that little bit better at flocking until eventually a behaviour of individual robots results that leads to them swarming together.

"Throwing those flying robots and seeing them flock was truly magical"

Sabine has now moved on to to thinking about a situation where swarms of trillions of individuals are needed: nanomedicine. She wants to create nanobots that are each smaller than the width of a strand of hair and can be injected into cancer patients. Once inside the body they will search out and stick themselves to tumour cells. The tumour cells gobble them up, at which point they deliver drugs directly inside the rogue cell. How do you make them behave in a way that gives the best cancer treatment though? For example, how do you stop them all just sticking to the same outer cancer cells? One way might be to give them a simple swarm behaviour that allows them to go to different depths and only then switch on their stickiness, allowing them to destroy all the cancer cells. This is the sort of thing Sabine's team are experimenting with.

Swarm engineering has all sorts of other practical applications, and while Sabine is leading the way, some time soon we may need lots more swarm engineers, able to design swarm systems to solve specific problems. Might that be you?

Explore swarm behaviour using the Oxford Turtle system to see how to run a flocking simulation as well as program your own swarms.