SubCULTron : a "swarm" of robots to the rescue in the Venice Lagoon

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To monitor the health of the Venice Lagoon using different types of bio-inspired underwater robots : such is the ambition of this extraordinary European project, which involves the Ecole des Mines de Nantes.

It is very rare for the subject of a research project to have such a poetic or an even philosphical dimension. Yet that is exactly the case with subCULTron, a futuristic European project, working on the underwater monitoring of the Venice Lagoon. Coordinated by the Artificial Life Lab of the University of Graz, in Austria, with the collaboration of the Ecole des Mines de Nantes along with the Free University of Brussels, the University of Zagreb, an electronics company from Stuttgart and  the Sant' Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, it brings together biologists, roboticists, underwater robotics experts, and instrumentation specialists. SubCULTron receives funding of 5 million euros.

The idea is to monitor changes in the Venice Lagoon using an "ecosystem" of three types of robot with specific characteristics, designed to complement each other and interact. The first group consists of a fleet of several hundred artificial mussels (aMussels), about 50 cm tall, that sit on the ground and are able to "switch themselves off" and to switch themselves back on again. They recharge using marine currents. "They are little factories which collect different environmental data : temperature, turbidity, salinity...", explains Frédéric Boyer, bio-robotics lecturer at the Ecole des Mines de Nantes.

The second type of robots are the aPads - the lilypads, which float on the water surface, and are equipped with solar panels. They are designed to complete the communication chain from the aMussels to the scientists in the lab. This is done via the last type of robots - the artificial fish (aFish), of which there are about 50. The aFish supply them with the energy they need,  (simply through contact) and transmit the information. They can also be used to move the aMussels.


A unique testing ground


The Venice Lagoon is a particularly difficult milieu to analyze. The characteristics of the waters are constantly changing, often as a result of the strong currents. The Venice waters are influenced by a number of factors such as fishing, industrial activity, biological pollution, and climatic change. Hence the need for real-time monitoring over a long period of time, to be able to put measures in place to help preserve 'la Serenissima'. It is of course virtually impossible to send down divers to collect data ... "Not only are there cultural and heritage issues associated with Venice, it is also a magnificent testing ground, with a multitude of constraints", resumes Frédéric Boyer.

On the scientific front, the project is very ambitious. The tender process  envisages exploring the concept of "culture" between several types of robots. The swarm will be able to move and develop over time, depending on fluctuations in the underwater conditions. Better still : it is designed to  adopt autonomous "group behaviour", according to its position in the lagoon – similar to what we see in certain animals such as dolphins, which are able to develop certain techniques for hunting together.

The team of roboticists has also been inspired by the behaviour of other living creatures, in particular insects, such as cockroaches and ants. "Taken individually, none of them possesses any great intelligence, observes Frédéric Boyer. But as a group, "intelligent" group behavior kicks in, and develops over time. The insects show themselves to be capable of solving complex problems, whereas today we are discovering that a large number of social animals are able to develop veritable "animal cultures". So the aim of the project is to imitate these kinds of "cultures" with the robots. "In general, you work on one robot with a single task. With this project, we are taking things up a level, with several hundred machines ", adds the searcher.


A different concept of robotics


Another source of inspiration for the scientists : certain fish like the eel and the torpedo are able to navigate and swim through muddy water thanks to an electric field which they create and detect, using different organs as emitters and receivers. This skill will be used for subCULTron's aMussels and aFish. The research scientists at the Ecole des Mines in particuliar, are working on the question of the "electric sense" of fish robots.

At the end of the four-year project, the aim is to be able to install a complete system, at different locations around the lagoon, and to demonstrate that everything is working. Even if one of the robots breaks down, the whole system should continue to function... It may be that not all the objectives are achieved, but the experiment will definitely have generated information, developed new technologies, and perhaps registered patents. The first trials, near the Venetian Arsenal, were conducted to test the sub-systems and the interactions between the robots. The next step ? In the Autumn, a number of aMussels will be installed on the seabed. A critical point - amongst others - will be the life span of different elements, and in particular how well they resist  corrosion.

It is hardly surprising that this exceptional project, a multidisciplinary as well as very "photogenic" project, has over the past few months been the subject of many articles across Europe... It really is hard to imagine a better ambassador for young people and the "general public" to get them interested in science.


The promise of "bio-inspired" robotics


As yet relatively unknown to the general public, "bio-inspired" robotics (in other words, built on the knowledge of living creatures ) would seem to be an alternative to "traditional" robotics, modelled on humans and often involving very complex technology. There is much lively debate between the proponents of the two conceptions.

"Bioinspiration is today a significant trend in our field and in others, highlights Frédéric Boyer. It is a way of reconciling technology and nature by looking to the ways animals have found to solve complex problems without putting their environment at risk, for inspiration." Another result of this approach, the cost of individual subCULTron robots should not be more than a few hundred euros, whereas the cost of conventional humanoid robots would be exorbitant.

As yet uncertain, the future of this "différent" kind of robotics would seem to be immense. It can be used in different areas such as agriculture, relief, monitoring the environment, and transport. A number of leading laboratories, particularly in the United States (starting with the prestigious MIT) and in Germany, are working on this. And prototypes of robots which imitate crabs, flies, bats, cameleons and the octopus already exist.


The subCULTron project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 FET. It will be carried out over four years.


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