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

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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

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