career

We asked a scientist what swarms of robots are going to mean for us in the future.

People assume the future of robots will be mannequins taking over the world. In Airlie Chapman’s area of research the reality is far less creepy and much more practical.

It’s simple. The numbers are low when it comes to women in science and we need to change those numbers.

Less than 30 percent of scientific researchers are women, and only 3 percent of Scientific Nobel Prizes have ever been awarded to women.

That’s why the prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship program, which recognises the most outstanding female scientific researchers in Australia, is so important.

This year’s fellows are a bunch of inspiring women doing amazing things in science. Take Melbourne-based mechatronic engineer, Dr Airlie Chapman, for example.

She’s changing the face of a male-dominated industry by focusing on the way robots interact with the world around us. These human-swarm interactions could provide an array of benefits from emergency surveillance to agriculture monitoring or military applications.

We sat down with Chapman to talk all things science.

What exactly does a mechatronic engineer do?

“Mechatronic engineers explore developments in automation and manufacturing. It is a discipline that blends mechanical, electrical and software engineering. My specific work is in the field of multi-vehicle, or swarm, robotics,” Chapman told Mamamia.

How did you get into science and the world of mechatronic engineering?

“From early in my schooling, I had a passion for mathematical problem solving and a fixation on the tiny robots from the film “*Batteries not Included”. When it came to continuing my studies, I wanted to bring my mathematics to life.”

“I wanted a future where I was solving significant problems with creativity and collaboration. Engineering draws upon all these qualities. As engineers, we work together to find solutions with far-reaching benefits.”

“For example, my work on robotic coverage can be used to efficiently re-establish a communication network after a natural disaster or monitor wildlife migration over large areas of land, air and sea,” Chapman said.

Airlie Chapman is making serious waves in a dominated industry.
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How far into the future is your work focused?

“My work has a dual focus on both short-term and long-term projects. The theory can be developed in months or over several years. Some research areas involving autonomous robots and aerial robots have some legislative hurdles that need to be overcome and consequently can take longer. I expect, my more ambitious projects will come fully to life in one to two decades.”

What is a robotic swarm, and how will these be used in the future?

“Robotic swarming research examines distributed methods that allow many autonomous robots to achieve a common global goal using only individual robot information,” explains Chapman.

“Imagine a flock of aerial robots collaboratively searching for a lost hiker over a large area where only short-range communication is possible. The coordinated activity between autonomous robots must happen despite there being no central commander advising on what to do next.”

“A distributed approach produces solutions that can dramatically outperform problems that are traditionally tackled by a single robot. A swarm of cheap small robots, each with little capability, can replace one costly highly-capable robot.”

“Importantly, a single robot failure in turn no longer leads to an overall task failure. Robotic swarming is ideal for applications that are dull, dirty and dangerous such as agriculture and wildlife monitoring and disaster management such as oil-spill clean-up robots and mine-collapse search robots,” said Chapman.

Tiny machines with big potential.
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Where did the idea of robotic swarming come from?

“Inspiration when designing the distributed methods for robotics swarms comes from many different places, but especially from nature. When looking at a school of fish swarming or a flock of birds moving together you can use that distributed behaviour to write similar equations that work for robots.”
“The efficiency of biological swarms is remarkable. We hope to one day create a robotic swarm that can perform and dance like a flock of starlings, and all through the use of mathematics.”

What's one of the coolest things you predict robots will be able to do?

“Robots in the future will collect “big data” and interpret this information all on their own. A robot’s sensors supply it with information about its surroundings. The interpretation of this information is necessary for spatial and contextual awareness to complete a task. This process has to be reliable and reproducible as without it our robots are lost in complex and changing environments,” said Chapman.

“In addition to completing tasks for us, robots will provide us with reliable data that will increase our knowledge of the world. Precision watering of crops, for example, could supply us with more accurate maps of land erosion, crop health and water run-off, in addition to minimising water usage.”

“In times of water conservation, and national drought, these kinds of robotic application will save water, time and money and provide farmer with valuable land usage information - helping to alleviate the economic impact on farming communities.”

What's one of the biggest assumptions people make about a future with robots?

“There is a misconception that the robots of the future will be working fully independently. I foresee more collaborative applications with humans and robots working together.”

“In bush fire-fighting operations, for example, autonomous systems can work in conjunction with humans. A flock of aerial vehicles can support firefighters by providing critical information on the changing fire conditions. As firefighters move with respect to the fire front the flock can move in concert, better positioning themselves to gather and relay more significant information. This is called human-swarm interaction,” said Chapman.

What does the L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship program mean to you?

“The program has assisted me to progress my career through public awareness of my research and funding that supports travel, research staff and allows us to purchase specialised equipment.

“I have had the opportunity to interact with accomplished female researchers in STEM fields. Ultimately, through organised activities as part of the fellowship such as schools’ education programmes, I hope to inspire the next generation of mechatronic engineers.”

Consider us inspired.

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