Empowering WECA pupils with data for sustainable school streets

Posted on

Speeding cars, traffic jams, air pollution… these are but a few of the grievances the average city dweller contends with on a daily basis. Below the driving age, children in the West of England do not contribute to these problems, yet they are among the most vulnerable to their consequences.

To allow children to safely make their way to school, without the need to breathe in polluted air and to arrive in a timely manner, EU citizen science project WeCount, together with DETI Inspire, has launched a series of educational resources for KS2 and KS4 pupils. Covering a wide range of subjects, all curriculum linked, children are able to learn about the grand challenges’ cities face in relation to urban travel, and the steps they can take collectively to make their school streets, and cities, safer, healthier and happier. By taking part, schools can gain points towards Modeshift STARS Travel Plan accreditation.

This collaborative project is coordinated by UWE Bristol researchers from the Science Communication Unit. Project manager Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers explains why these resources are so important:

“Road transport is a leading cause of air pollution and climate change within the West of England. For our cities to become net zero carbon emissions by 2030, the date which scientists warn is our deadline to keep global warming below 1.5°C and prevent runaway climate change, drastic changes need to be made to every aspect of life, not least driving. WeCount sensors and associated school resources are one piece of the puzzle in helping citizens to create the changes they wish to see. “

What is WeCount?

WeCount, led by UWE Bristol, is a project that equips households, community centres and schools with low-cost traffic sensors to count cars, bikes, pedestrians and heavy vehicles, as well as the speed of cars. Over time, the citizen scientists can observe trends and use the evidence to lobby for changes on their roads. Among the successes with WeCount data so far, citizens across Europe have convinced their councils to install speed cameras and reduce road speeds, and consider bike lanes and pedestrianisation, spread awareness among residents and contributed to consultations on new housing developments.

How do we get involved?

WeCount is giving away 20 sensors to schools across the West of England. Contact engineeringourfuture@uwe.ac.uk to apply for one for your school.

KS2 resources are freely available here. KS4 due for release later this month. Email the above email address if you would like to be sent a KS4 pack directly to your school when available.

All resources can be delivered without a sensor, using the data available on the Telraam website.

You are also able to buy all of the components required for the sensor at PiHut. For more details on the equipment you need, please see this document .

What’s inside the KS2 pack?

A whole school assembly

Fifteen curriculum-linked worksheets, with instructions and PowerPoint for teachers, covering Geography, IT, Maths, Science, Art and English, Design and Technology. These include tasks to: collect and analyse data; understand different urban travel views; design a bike for the future; vision a healthier, happier school street; and persuade the mayor to consider your proposals.

Lessons can be delivered independently or combined for after-school clubs or themed curriculum, and can be teacher-led or with the support of UWE Bristol or STEM Ambassadors.

What’s inside the KS4 pack?

A whole school assembly

Ten curriculum-linked worksheets, with instructions and PowerPoint for teachers, covering nearly all GCSE subjects – Geography, Computer Science, Maths, Science, Citizenship and English, Design and Technology, History and Engineering. These activities include tasks to: learn about the influence of powerful actors on the proliferation of the car; collect and analyse data; explore the science behind the sensors; debate the role of AI in solving the climate crisis; research local travel issues and viewpoints; design interventions and deliver action projects; creatively write about their experiences.

Lessons can be delivered independently or combined for after-school clubs or themed curriculum, and can be teacher-led or with the support of UWE or STEM Ambassadors.

Sophie Laggan,  Research Associate, citizen empowerment and policy change for urban health and sustainability at UWE Bristol.

New Minecraft programme allows children to digitally engineer the West of England

Posted on

A new Minecraft programme featuring iconic Bristol and Bath landmarks is allowing children to digitally engineer the West of England, improving their scientific knowledge and encouraging them to consider Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.

The Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) programme team at UWE Bristol have been exploring digitally engineering the West with local children, using the incredibly popular block-building video game Minecraft.

Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge variety of constructions. Players can easily make changes to their builds and quickly visualise new ideas, much like computer-aided design (CAD) software used for digital engineering.

The DETI Skills Inspire team partnered with local design and engineering consultancy Atkins, and Minecraft experts Dr Laura Hobbs and Jonathan Kim, to create a scale recreation of Bristol and Bath within the game, allowing local children to explore, build, re-design and re-engineer their very own cities.

Consultants from Atkins created a programme to convert Ordnance Survey data into a to-scale Minecraft world, allowing a highly detailed Bristol and Bath to be created – the West in Minecraft.

This new world was then populated with famous engineering landmarks such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol Temple Meads Station and the SS Great Britain.

DETI Skills Inspire has been using this new Minecraft world at after-school STEM clubs recently established in Lawrence Weston and Easton, Bristol, as part of a STEM in the Community project funded by UWE Bristol and the STEM Ambassador hub West England, in collaboration with local community groups in both areas.

By re-creating these areas of Bristol within the game, children from both Lawrence Weston and Easton are able to explore the parts of their community that are familiar to them, piquing their interest and giving them power to reshape where they live.

Exploring new areas of the city through Minecraft also opens up opportunities for children to visit and talk about some of the city’s famous landmarks, many of which they may never have seen before, strengthening their knowledge and cultural connection with these areas and our city as a whole.

Liz Lister, Manager of the STEM Ambassador Hub West England, said: “Giving young people access to these places and giving them power to reshape them, even if it is just in Minecraft, offers them the opportunity to imagine their world as being different to what it is now. We hope that planting the idea that we can have some control over our own environment will lead some young people to think about the relevance of design and engineering to their lives, and then perhaps on to thinking of themselves as designers and engineers of the future.”

The activity utilises the approach developed by Science Hunters, which is based at UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit and Lancaster University, and is affiliated with their Royal Academy of Engineering-funded engineering strand Building to Break Barriers . The game has proven to be a successful educational tool, and evaluations undertaken by Science Hunters indicate that use of Minecraft through their approach  both attracts children who might not otherwise have engaged with science learning, and successfully improves scientific knowledge and understanding after participating in sessions.

Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Senior Lecturer in STEM Education and Communication at UWE Bristol, said: “So far ‘the West in Minecraft’ has been a huge success amongst the young people attending these STEM clubs. There has been much excitement at finding their own homes within the model city, re-building structures and adding to existing ones. Farms have been built on rooftops as the children have been encouraged to think about how they would re-design their city for a net zero future.”

A set of school resources to explore digital engineering, using this new Minecraft world, are currently being developed by the DETI Inspire team for release next academic year. These 1-2 hour lessons are currently being trialled with local primary schools, linking activities to the curriculum and drawing on several different subject areas to allow for a cross-curricular and rather unique learning experience.

New community STEM club launched in Easton

Posted on

STEM @ Baggator is a community STEM club for young people in Easton that takes place after school on Mondays (3-8.30pm) and welcomes all young people in the area to drop by and join in!

The club was co-developed with members of the local community, with support from the STEM Ambassador hub for the West of England and the DETI Inspire team at UWE Bristol, as part of a STEM in the community project funded by UWE, which aims to help STEM Ambassadors and UWE students collaborate to run STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) initiatives that are relevant to their local communities.

Lego Mindstorms being assembled at STEM @ Baggator

STEM @ Baggator had a hugely successful launch event last week, with over 30 local young people joining in for some robot building and racing! There was a wonderfully positive atmosphere throughout the evening with everyone keen to get involved and even help tidy up all the stray pieces of Lego that had found their way onto the floor, as Lego tends to do!

At the next session, the team will be trialling a brand new activity which will have young people re-designing their local areas digitally, using the popular game Minecraft and a specially designed scale model of Bristol city.

A swarm of robots at STEM @ Baggator!

STEM in the community is an ongoing project based at UWE Bristol and we’ll be sharing more news of the initiatives that are being co-developed with other communities in the West of England region. If you would like to know more about STEM @ Baggator or would like to collaborate on a new community STEM project, please contact the team at deti@uwe.ac.uk

DETI is a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), delivered by the National Composites Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Modelling & SimulationDigital Catapult, the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bath. DETI is funded by £5m from WECA, with co-investment from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry.

This post was originally published on the Engineering Our Future blog.

Women Like Me engineers inspire Bristol primary school students

Posted on

Based in the Science Communication Unit and Department of Engineering Design and Mathematics at UWE Bristol and organised by Dr Laura Hobbs and Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Women Like Me is a peer mentoring and outreach project, aimed at boosting female representation in engineering. It is supported by the initiative for Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI).

Engineers on our Women Like Me programme are currently undertaking engineering outreach and engagement with children in the Southwest. Recently, Whitehall Primary School in Bristol asked if our engineers could answer questions from their Year 2 pupils as part of their ‘Amazing Engineers’ topic.

The children’s perceptive questions ranged from ‘Why did you want to be an engineer?’ to ‘Did you play with Lego when you were 7 years old?’:

  • Why did you want to be an engineer? 
  • Do you know what your next invention/work will be? 
  • How hard is engineering? 
  • Did you play with Lego when you were 7 years old? 
  • What kind of things do you use at work? 
  • What kind of engineer are you? 
  • Do you like your job? 
  • Did anyone help you with your first project? 

Four women in engineering, three from our current cohort and one a Women Like Me alumna, produced videos in which they answered the children’s questions, giving them both insights into the varied roles in engineering, and representation of diversity within the sector.

With women making up only 12% of engineers in the UK, more girls need to connect with engineering as a career, with positive female role models, and more women need to be supported to make a difference in the workplace. Find out more about the importance of diversity in engineering here.

More ‘meet an engineer’ videos can be found in our playlist.

The school described the connection with engineers as a “great experience for the children”. They really enjoyed watching the videos and hearing from real-life engineers answering their questions.

The children absolutely LOVED the videos! They were talking about them for days – really excited and buzzing! We’re so grateful for the time taken by your engineers to record them.

Kathie Cooke, Whitehall Primary School

Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI) is a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), delivered by the National Composites Centre, in partnership with the Centre for Modelling & SimulationDigital Catapult, the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, and the University of Bath. Industry partners include Airbus, GKN Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, and CFMS, with in kind contributions from UWE, Digital Catapult and Siemens. DETI is funded by £5m from WECA, with co-investment from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and industry.

This post was originally published on the Engineering Our Future blog.

Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in delivering Citizen Science projects: Insights from the WeCount project

Posted on

Margarida Sardo and Sophie Laggan

WeCount is a citizen science research project funded by the H2020 SwafS-programme and aims to empower citizens to take a leading role in the production of data, evidence and knowledge around mobility in their own neighbourhoods. The project started in December 2019 and was designed to have lots of face-to-face engagement and interaction between the project team and citizens in five European cities and regions (Leuven in Belgium; Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Dublin in Ireland and Cardiff in the UK).

Just as the project started recruiting citizens and running workshops, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant restrictions on who we could meet and where we could meet them. Eventually, all WeCount countries went into lockdown, which placed additional challenges on delivering the project as it was originally planned.

Dr Margarida Sardo, from the Science Communication Unit conducted a short evaluation aimed at understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in running and delivering a large-scale, international citizen science project.

Main challenges faced by the WeCount team:

  • Uncertainty
  • Changing priorities
  • Reaching specific groups, such as senior citizens and low socio-economic groups
  • Online fatigue
  • Fear of face-to-face
  • Digital skills
  • Logistics

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt created new challenges for some citizen science projects, but with hybrid approaches to participant recruitment and engagement, projects can still thrive. This study provides useful advice for creating the flexibility, adaptability, refocus required to overcome the challenges faced.

Based on the findings of this evaluation, Sophie Laggan has created a full infographic, highlighting both the challenges faced by the WeCount team, but also offering helpful approaches to counterbalance the impacts of the pandemic on delivering the project.

For a closer look at the infographic below or to download a copy, please click here.

Providing space for social communication in a STEM engagement project

Posted on

This post was originally published on the Engineering our Future and Curiosity Connections blogs.

Neurodiversity Week (15-21 March 2021) celebrates our unique strengths and differences, while recognising that the many talents of people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other neurodiverse ways of thinking and learning are often not suited to traditional, formal learning environments. Science Hunters is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) outreach and research programme that uses Minecraft to engage children from under-represented groups with STEM. Projects have covered a wide range of topics such as the Amazon rainforest, understanding diabetes, earth science and volcanoes and space, with the Building to Break Barriers project currently running at UWE Bristol engaging children with many aspects of engineering.

Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge range of constructions. It can be played either as a single-player game or in a shared virtual world with multiple users playing together, and was chosen for Science Hunters because of its popularity (children want to play it!), particular appeal to children who learn differently, and suitability for explaining science.

Food inside lunar base.

A key target group for Science Hunters is children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), particularly through a dedicated Minecraft Club that has been running since 2015. It soon became clear that taking part in the club, alongside children with similar needs in an accepting environment, and playing a game which was a shared special interest, had more benefits for participants than STEM learning alone.

When face-to-face sessions are possible, as they were until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minecraft Club uses a dedicated server, so that children can play together in a safe social online space. Most of the children who attend have ADHD, autism and/or dyslexia. Spaces are limited to no more than 16 at a time, with simple guidelines to keep the club fun; children are not under pressure to conform to ‘neurotypical’ behaviour norms as may be expected in non-specific settings. STEM topics are briefly introduced, and then participants are free to build in Minecraft in relation to that topic; while adults are there to guide and support, children are encouraged to follow their own interests and ideas to create their own unique designs. For four years, data were collected from participating children and their parents/carers, who attended with them, through surveys and interviews.

During this time, 101 children aged 5-17 years attended; responses were gathered from 29 children and 37 caregivers. Results indicated that children both enjoyed and learnt something from attending, and while their feedback understandably often focused on Minecraft, they also indicated that they had benefitted socially and emotionally from being in the shared space with other children with similar interests. This was supported by insights from parents and carers, who described benefits outside the club, such as improved confidence and wellbeing, improved social skills, and reduced need for formal learning support.

Interest in playing Minecraft is what motivates children to attend, and the game provides a range of opportunities for children to potentially develop social and educational skills. This is supported by the process of designing and completing builds, independently or collaboratively, and communicating with others within the shared virtual world. Playing in the same physical space enhances this, as communication can move between the virtual and real worlds and allow in-person peer support and the ‘safe space’ provided in our Minecraft Club supports children with SEN to interact naturally and spontaneously. While it was set up as part of STEM outreach, the social communication impacts of our Minecraft Club – such as making friends, fitting in, and feeling valued without judgement regardless of completing tasks or conforming to expected social behaviours – are at least as important.

Minecraft Club is currently running virtually as part of Building to Break Barriers. We’ve looked at earthquake-proof buildings, protecting against flooding, tunnels, drones and more, and are exploring the effects of the change to meeting online.

More information about Minecraft Club, and its impacts reported here, is available in Hobbs et al. (2020) Shared special interest play in a specific extra-curricular group setting: A Minecraft Club for children with Special Educational Needs, Educational and Child Psychology, 37(4), 81-95.

If you have any queries about the project please contact ExtendingSTEM@uwe.ac.uk .

What is an engineer anyway? – Communicating engineering careers to pupils with DETI’s Engineering Curiosity project

Posted on

When children are asked what an engineer is, and what they look like, it can often be a tricky question.  They may jump to the image of an engine mechanic, or a man in overalls with a spanner and a hard-hat.  They may also have trouble recognising familiar jobs as coming under the umbrella of engineering. 

Engineering is defined as ‘working artfully to bring something about’. More literally, it is the application of science and maths to solve problems. And it’s a career that is more relevant than ever – to achieve net zero and a low carbon global economy, everything we make and use, from aircraft to cars, batteries to wind turbines, will need to be completely re-imagined and re-engineered.

When a child does not personally know an engineer, or does not recognise the role of engineering in solving the problems faced by a society, then this notion of an engineer becomes more removed from their view, and critically, from their career aspirations.  In science communication, we encounter children with low science capital throughout our work.  So how can the children dream of becoming an engineer, if they don’t know what one is? 

You can’t be what you can’t see

It is difficult for children to imagine themselves in that job, when the engineer does not look like them.  Encouraging girls and children from minority ethnic groups into engineering careers, and STEM careers more broadly, is a key focus of the DETI Inspire team working out of UWE. 

In collaboration with My Future My Choice, as well as many local engineers; the DETI Inspire team at UWE have developed the Engineering Curiosity cards and lesson resources for schools.  The aim is to bring the diversity of the West of England’s amazing engineers into the classroom and enthuse and inspire both primary and secondary pupils.  Through not only learning about what an engineer is and recognising their role, but also introducing them to real-life local engineers that may come from similar beginnings, so that they can start to think of engineering as something that could be for them!

Engineering Curiosity

Engineering Curiosity is a collection of 52 cards, based upon 52 local engineers in a wide variety of different roles and industries, in a kind of ‘Top Trumps’ meets ‘Happy Families’ style game.  The engineers featured have also each produced an engaging TikTok style video, giving a fun snapshot of their role and their route into it.  The project has developed lesson plans, curriculum linked worksheets and activities, and school-wide assemblies to accompany the cards and videos, all to aid schools in running sessions that involve the real engineers joining them live in the classroom through video link. 

During the recent British Science Week, local schools around the West have been taking part in DETI’s ‘Big Beam In!’, bringing the sessions to life and reaching over 3500 pupils.  Some of which may just be the West’s future engineers!

Looking to inspire in your science communication, or want to check out all the engineering roles for yourself?  You can find the resources, lesson plans and cards on the Curiosity Connections website.

DETI Inspire builds on the success of previous projects founded and launched in the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol, including Curiosity Connections – the network for inspirational primary STEM education in the West of England, and Women Like Me – a tiered mentoring project for women engineers. The project is led by Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers and includes Ana Bristow, Sophie Laggan and Josh Warren from the SCU.

Josh Warren

Seeing people in the data

Posted on

By Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers

We’re living through a Climate and Ecological Emergency and we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions. And yet society seems frozen into inaction. Could a new modelling and communication approach help to gather momentum?

The ClairCity project was led by UWE Bristol and brought together the Air Quality Monitoring Resource Centre and the Science Communication Unit. The project reached over 818,000 citizens through innovative public engagement methods including an online game, extensive workshops and surveys, and schools activities.

In a journal paper recently released, the research team detailed their innovative method to bring these results together, through citizen-centred source apportionment. Traditional methods for monitoring air pollution and carbon emissions look at what is creating the emissions (vehicles, heating etc), and where the emissions end up (pollution hot spots).

Focus on Who and Why

This new approach focusses on who is burning fossil fuels and why they are doing so. This means we can understand the human dimension of emissions to improve policymaking, accounting for demographics (gender or age groups), socio-economic factors (income/car ownership) and motives for specific behaviours (e.g., commuting to work, leisure, shopping, etc.).

The modelling produced some surprises when applied to traffic in Bristol – as leisure travel accounted for the most km travelled, and therefore the most emissions per year.  Local councils usually focus on school traffic or commuting, but this provides a new way to approach emissions reduction. Policymakers plan to look at ways to reduce car use for leisure travel, for instance locating leisure venues near to public transport or cycling paths, or even considering plans for 15 minute cities, where any necessary city amenities are within a 15 minute walk from homes.

Figure 1. (a) This infographic presents the relative contribution of each motive to total kilometres travelled by car in Bristol in 2015. It was designed to highlight recognisable social practices and activities.
Figure 1. (b) This social card links to the data and was designed to resonate with activities that people do every day that contribute to carbon emissions and air pollution.

For science communicators, there is also much to think through as well. The modelling showed that emissions are not evenly produced; certain types of people produce more emissions than others, and some feel the effects of pollution more than others. For instance, men travel by car more than women, and people who earn over £50,000 per year tend to own more cars, and therefore drive far more often.

Figure 2. Infographic (top) and social card (bottom) showing differences in air pollution produced through men’s and women’s different travel habits.

Perceptions of ‘sensible’ climate action vary between groups

We therefore need a far more nuanced approach to communicating about climate action. Climate Outreach have done some excellent work on this topic, with their work on seven segments of British society and their attitudes to climate action. Science communicators need to focus on the segments polluting the most, and tailor communications showing the benefits of each relevant action they can take.

The UWE team’s new journal paper take this further using social psychology theories, explaining how the social contexts of the groups to which we belong influence what we perceive to be ‘normal’ in society. This means that cultural realities can change between social groups, cities, regions and countries. This ‘Overton Window of Political Possibility’ can shift over time so that an idea moves from unthinkable to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular and finally into policy. For example, a climate change policy which is considered quite sensible in one city, such as an extensive network of segregated bike lanes allowing for cars to be curtailed in the city centre (Amsterdam in the Netherlands), may be considered to be quite radical in another city (such as Bristol, U.K.).

Science communications needs to focus on group lived experience of this ‘normality’, in order to understand more about why our day-to-day behaviours happen, and how we can change if we see others doing the same. Politicians will generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options, or otherwise, they may risk losing popular support and become unelectable. In order to introduce new policies, we therefore need to show how an idea can be communicated so that it resonates with what is deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘sensible’ to the majority of citizens.

People like me create emissions, and people like me can take action

The UWE team showed how social cognitive theory can be used to help improve individual and collective self-efficacy for climate action. Using an example of more women cycling to activities, we need to focus on:

  1. Vicarious experiences (i.e., comparisons of capability to others, modelling and observing)—a woman deciding whether to cycle will be influenced by whether other women cycle; if this is considered a ’normal’ thing for women to do, then other women will likely join in.
  2. Mastery or performance accomplishments (i.e., experiences of relevant success)—a beginner female cyclist will be more likely to continue cycling if they have a positive experience cycling on main roads; they will then have a memory to recall about their ability to cycle alongside cars.
  3. Verbal persuasions (positive feedback from peers and supervisors, coaching)—to continue cycling, the female cyclist would need to receive direct positive feedback on this activity.
  4. Emotional arousal – both vicarious (indirect) and mastery (direct) experiences can influence our emotional states. To improve self-efficacy for an activity, we need to experience positive emotional responses. Therefore, the woman would need to feel that she is capable and confident at cycling and that other people approve or admire her behaviour.

So climate action needs positive (and relevant) role models, alongside positive press or communications (in relevant media) in order to help change our behaviours.

The ClairCity project showed how new thinking about the role of people in relation to air pollution and carbon emissions can widen options for action, leading to more acceptable and effective policies. Climate communications should draw on social learning in order to tailor communication efforts towards relevant groups. Ultimately, we need to become more aware that ’people like me’ create emissions and, equally, ‘people like me’ can take action to reduce emissions.


Fogg-Rogers, L.; Hayes, E.; Vanherle, K.; Pápics, P.I..; Chatterton, T.; Barnes, J.; Slingerland, S.; Boushel, C.; Laggan, S.; Longhurst, J.. Applying Social Learning to Climate Communications—Visualising ‘People Like Me’ in Air Pollution and Climate Change Data. Sustainability 2021, 13(6) 3406 doi.org/10.3390/su13063406

Mutual Shaping in Swarm Robotics: User Studies in Fire and Rescue, Storage Organization, and Bridge Inspection

Posted on

Fire engine at the Bristol Robotics Lab after a focus group session with local firefighters

I remember this story as if it was yesterday. It was the summer of 2013. I was laying on my bed, listening to music. All of the sudden, I heard someone screaming louder than my music, and banging on the door of my flat. I quickly took off my headphones, dashed to the door, opened it, and found my neighbour shaking, with her face as pale as chalk. Without any word, she grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her flat. Then, I went into panic. Smoke was coming out of the door! As we entered the flat running, my neighbour quickly managed to explain that the heater above the wooden bathroom door had caught fire while she was giving a bath to the old lady she was caring for. The old lady needed rescuing. Luckily, we both could take the old lady out of the bathroom before the fire developed more. A fire brigade came in a matter of minutes. The bathroom was destroyed, but no-one was injured.

After that experience, I knew I wanted to do something useful for firefighters because I had experienced how extremely dangerous it is for them to enter a building covered in smoke to put out a fire. Did I become a firefighter? Not quite. I decided to do a PhD in swarm robotics at the Bristol Robotics Lab to design useful technology for fire brigades. Swarm robotics is the study of hundreds and thousands of robots that collaborate with each other to solve tasks without any leader, just like swarms of ants, bees, fish or even cells in our bodies. Imagine if firefighters could release a swarm of robots at the entrance of a building on fire to create a map of the hazards, source of fire and casualties, so that firefighters don’t waste time searching (which is one of the most dangerous parts of their profession). Swarm robotics could also be applied in other settings. How about if warehouses had a swarm of robots automatically organising the stock so that employees only have to ask the swarm for the products they want? Or what if a swarm of robots could spread all over a bridge to monitor cracks? In my opinion, robot swarms are almost ready to leave the lab and enter the real world. We just need to know the type of robot swarms that potential users need. So, along with co-authors Emma Milner, Julian Hird, Georgios Tzoumas, Paul Vardanega, Mahesh Sooriyabandara, Manuel Giuliani, Alan Winfield and Sabine Hauert, we did three studies where we spoke with 37 professionals from fire brigades, storage organisation and bridge inspection. The results have recently been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI (you can read the paper here).





Mutual shaping: a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developer

For the three studies, we followed the framework of mutual shaping. The long-term aim is to create a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developers so that we can incorporate societal choices at all stages of the research and development process, as opposed to more traditional methods where users are asked what they care about once the technology has already been designed. In our studies, we first had a discussion with participants to find out about their job, their challenges and their needs, without any introduction to swarm robotics. After listening to their explanation of the art of their profession, we introduced them to swarm robotics, and gave them examples where robot swarms could be useful for them. Finally, we had another discussion around how useful those examples were for them, and challenged them to think about any other scenarios where robot swarms could assist them.

We found very helpful take-home messages. The first one was that participants were open to the idea of using robot swarms in their jobs. That was somewhat surprising, as we were expecting them to focus more on the downsides of the technology, given how robot swarms are frequently portrayed in science fiction. The second point had to do with the particular tasks that participants felt robot swarms could/couldn’t do. This was an extraordinary insight because we identified their priorities, hence the next steps to advance in the swarm robotics research. For example, firefighters said they would highly benefit from robot swarms that could gather information for them very quickly. On the contrary, they wouldn’t like robot swarms extinguishing fires because of the tremendous amount of variables involved in fire extinguishing. That’s exactly the art of their profession – they know how to extinguish fires. In the study with the sector of storage organisation, a participant from a charity shop said that they wouldn’t like robots valuing the items they receive, but robot swarms could be useful for organising the stock more efficiently. Bridge inspectors would rather assess whether there’s damage by themselves, given the information about the bridge that a robot swarm sends them. Finally, most participants brought up concerns to tackle if we want to successfully deploy swarms in the real world. These mainly had to do with transparency, accountability, safety, reliability and usability. Some of the challenges for swarm robotics that were collectively identified in the studies are the following:

  • How can we really understand what’s happening within a robot swarm?
  • How can we make safe robot swarms for users?
  • How can we manufacture robot swarms to be used out of the box without expert training or difficult maintenance?


Bar chart of answers to one of the questions asked to fire brigades

Personally, what struck me the most in my study was that almost three quarters of the participants from fire brigades expressed that they would like to be included in the research and development process from the very beginning. So, engaging with them through mutual shaping was a good choice because it opened up the relationship that they apparently want to have. And that’s really inspiring! I hope our research opens up exciting paths to explore in the future. Paths that will take swarm robotics a step closer to making robot swarms useful for society.

Daniel Carrillo-Zapata, PhD in swarm robotics and self-organisation, Bristol Robotics Laboratory