Robot autonomy and intelligent machines

Whether you’re planning a trip to Mars, exploring radioactive buildings, or patrolling underground pipes for leaks, it helps to have a robot pal – and especially one that can think for themselves.

Most robots in use today either do very simple actions — like assembling parts or lifting heavy objects — or they need a human to control them. But scientists are also designing intelligent robots that can sense the world, think for themselves, and make their own decisions.

Robots that can work unguided are known as autonomous.

The hard part of designing autonomous robots is that they have to be prepared to respond to unexpected situations. We use our intelligence to decide how to deal with new experiences and autonomous robots need to be controlled by an intelligent computer program – known as artificial intelligence or AI.

Programming smart machines

We’ve seen in previous blogs that autonomous robots can take on tasks that are extremely dangerous or physically impossible for humans to take on, like handling nuclear waste, exploring the ocean depths, or looking for life on other planets.

Just like humans and other animals, AI’s can show intelligence by following rules for how to behave, by learning from experience, and by recognising patterns.

Some robots are programmed just like a piece of computer software to follow different rules based on what they see and hear around them. Another approach is to build a computerized version of a real brain that processes information and learns just like we do.

Lots of people are interested in making a robot that is as smart as a human. For example, Sophia is a human-like robot developed in Hong Kong, who has conducted lots of interviews and even gave a speech to the United Nations. But humans are not the only intelligent creatures on Earth! Scientists are taking inspiration from all kinds of different animals to create intelligent robots that are particularly good at certain tasks.

Sophia the Robot is a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence. Photo by ITU used under a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 License.

Mimicking Insects

Even insects are inspiring new kinds of robot. The School Robot Competition 2020 is supported by Brains on Board, a project based at the University of Sheffield that is developing autonomous flying robots that capable of learning and navigating like real honeybees.

If you’ve ever watched a bee or an ant up close, you might notice that they seem surprisingly intelligent. Even though insects are small and their brains are tiny they can have very complex behaviour. The Brains on Board project hopes to mimic the ability of bees to learn and navigate in an unpredictable world. For example, their flying robot MiniBee can see and fly just like a real bee. Groups of MiniBees can even fly together in a swarm.

Tiny swarms of intelligent robots could one-day perform all sorts of jobs from monitoring and repairing our cities to searching for people injured in a disaster zone.  

The MiniBee Robot can see and fly just like a real bee