Along with North America and East Asia, Europe has made robotics a key part of its strategy for economic competitiveness. The region is already responsible for 25% of the world’s supply and usage of industrial robots. European swarm robotics research is a promising area as automation expands to new use cases.
To put European robotics in context, Germany is the fifth largest robot market in the world, according to the International Federation of Robotics. France and the U.K. are developing artificial intelligence and unmanned systems, and the Netherlands is a leader in agricultural technology.
Between 2007 and 2013, the European Union invested 536 million euros ($610 million U.S.) in 130 research and development projects through its FP7 program. This was followed by FP8, also known as Horizon 2020, which earmarked 80 billion euros ($91 billion).
The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or SPARC, has authority over EU robotics investments. Among the many research projects that it and others have supported are fascinating examples of progress in European swarm robotics.
The U.K. looks ahead
The U.K. is the leader in European swarm robotics for two reasons. The first is that its military has identified swarm robotics as a priority.
Shortly after the U.K. introduced a fund valued at almost $1 billion to develop and acquire “next-generation defence technologies,” including “dragonfly drones,” its Ministry of Defense unveiled a competition in to develop technology around unmanned air system (UAS) swarms.
The ministry wanted these UAS swarms to be able to change their actions based on the mission and provided $4 million in funding, split between different ideas.
Second, like in the U.S., British academia is making waves. A team at the University of Sheffield developed software that can learn on its own without any human input. In other words, future swarms could be fully autonomous as they learn about their environment, fellow swarms, and targets.
Back in 2015, the University of Lincoln unveiled a pheromone system called Communication System via Pheromone. Inspired by insects, the system emits an artificial trail like a light. Once a robot picks up the trail, it would follow it, creating a swarm with others.
In addition, Rolls-Royce is working with the University of Nottingham and Harvard University on small collaborative robots in the SWARM project to help inspect and repair engines without removing them from aircraft.
Germany builds robot swarms for construction
Next in European swarm research is Germany. In 2016, Siemens and Princeton University said they were developing spider-like robots that can operate as a swarm to 3D-print objects. Siemens said it wants these 3D-printing swarms to build objects using concrete and other materials, a leap forward from the plastics conventional 3D printers use.
Separately, researchers from Germany, Spain, and Singapore are developing microscopic robots that are thinner than a human hair to work as a swarm and remove toxins such as lead and arsenic from water. In one experiment, the swarm of microbots removed 95% of lead from polluted water within one hour.
German robotics company Festo’s BionicANTS used “swarm intelligence” to communicate with one another. They reportedly could make decisions and collaborate autonomously.
This is similar to Stanford University’s robotic ants, which were able to move a car.
Earlier this year, AGCO GmbH placed second in the euRobotics Technology Transfer Award for its Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms (MARS) project, which is funded through the European Coordination Hub for Open Robotics Development (ECHORD++). Could European swarm robots reach the market faster than U.S. innovations?
Czech researchers go tiny for medicine
While European swarm and other robotics research in Western Europe gets a lot of attention, Eastern and Central Europe are also innovating.
František Štĕpánek, the lead scientist of a team at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague, once demonstrated tiny robots that have multiple applications. He previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry and realized that the current delivery method of medicines isn’t optimal.
So, he and his team developed “chobots,” which behave like “mini drug labs” in the body, potentially mixing chemicals and synthesizing medication on demand. This was an early sign of the convergence of European swarm robotics, nanotechnology, and biomedical applications.
Italian scientists work on communications
A team of researchers in Rome and the Netherlands is working on the Swarm Robotics for Agricultural Applications (SAGA) project under the auspices of ECHORD++.
The project was intended to develop vision processing, radio communication systems, and protocols for multiple unmanned aerial vehicles.
This past summer, researchers in Belgium published a paper on “Autonomous Task Sequencing in a Robot Swarm.” It showed how wheeled robots could work together in a “chain gang.”
International researchers have developed swarms of autonomous underwater robots to explore the canals of Venice. The subCULTron project was expected to cost more than $4.5 million and involve 120 robots . Once completed, it could be the largest underwater robot swarm in history, although the “CoCoRo” project had a similar goal.
In the multinational CoCoRo project, not only did robots move like fish; they also acted like them. The European swarm’s cognitive behavior was based on how fish behave in their environment.
The three types of underwater drones in the subCULTron project — “aFish,” “aMussels,” and “aPads” — resemble sea life, and each one has a different set of duties. Could schools of robotic fish be far behind?
If robots are built to resemble the species in the environments they operating in, could humanoids be coming to future offices?
More European swarm innovations
In the Netherlands, the DelFly drone from the Delft University of Technology could help with disaster recovery, monitoring inventory in warehouses, and even replace endangered bees for pollination.
A team in Austria is also working on drones to help honeybees, while the possibility of tiny surveillance drones has raised privacy concerns.
The EU has also led the way with drone regulations.
Two universities in Lisbon, Portugal, jointly developed 3D-printed “aquatic surface robots” that work in a swarm. These robots, which are envisioned to be deployed in the hundreds or thousands can be used for search and rescue, maritime surveillance and more. They operate autonomously by being connected to an “artificial brain”.
The E-SWARM project, funded by the European Research Council, has three goals, all of which revolve around developing the foundation and manufacturing capabilities for swarm intelligence systems.
In addition, the CPSwarm project includes drones, vehicles, and other cyber-physical systems as part of smart cities research. MIT is working with a university in Brussels on applying blockchain to robot swarms.
European swarm teams look to applications, competition
Of course, the U.S. and China have their own drone swarm projects in the air and in the water, many of which are for entertainment or military purposes. Russia has claimed that a January attack on a base in Syria was conducted by a U.S.-commanded aerial drone swarm. This is leading to work on swarm countermeasures, as well as debates about the ethics around swarm use.
In the U.S. much of the media focus on drones has been on military, delivery, infrastructure inspection, and consumer applications, but a wider global market beckons.
The global “swarm intelligence” market was worth $10.5 million last year and will experience a compound annual growth rate of 37.49% between then and 2028, mostly driven by defense, according to Research and Markets.
European swarm robotics has received significant support because EU policymakers have prioritized it as an important robotics field to invest in.
While the technology still has a ways to go, it’s possible that all these different projects could lead to faster commercialization than in the U.S. This will partly depend on the regulatory environment in each region.
Why is water a recurring theme in European swarm robots? For instance, the SWARMs project, which just ended, was intended to improve communications among underwater robots in “cooperation meshes.”
One of the potential uses of CoCoRo is underwater exploration for fuel. European swarm robots in the air, underwater, and underground could be the future of resource extraction. More autonomous drones could also help against wildfires in Europe and North America.
Perhaps the EU sees water pollution, maritime resources, and automated security as core to its future. The refugee crisis, warnings of climate change, and signs of economic recession are contributing factors.
For all of its academic research, European swarm robotics points to opportunities for commercial drone providers, worldwide.