Researchers and industry try their hand at swarm and soft robotics

TAS Functionality Node invited developers, operators, end users and researchers to attend two masterclasses in April and May, taking place at Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Participants heard about the TAS Node project, its recent outputs and the test cases in swarm, soft and aerial robotics- and how these autonomous systems may be deployed in logistics, manufacturing and infrastructure industries. They then explored the capabilities of these technologies in soft and swarm robotics via an interactive ‘teaching and doing’ format. One participant Peta Masters, from King’s College, London thanked us for delivering “a terrific masterclass last Thursday and for showing us around the robotics lab, which I thought was just fabulous. What an exciting place to work. Really inspiring.”

In the swarm workshop the participants got to programme a swarm of robots and see their simulation enacted.

Participants were split into 3 teams, each responsible for programming one of the robots in the swarm. The objective was to get the robots to pick up a carrier without bumping into obstacles. Each team started by simulating programming their robot’s behaviour and testing it out through simulations. Then they got to transfer the code to the robots and see their algorithm plays out in real life.

In the soft robotics workshop, participants tried two different demos to show how easy it is to build a soft robot but how complex it is to control.

In the first demo, they built a soft continuous manipulator with a polythene roll they had to cut and hermetically seal. The manipulator was then inflated through a compressor, and participants had to figure out how to control it to bring down objects in specific positions without touching other things simultaneously. Due to their nature, soft robots have theoretically infinite degrees of freedom. The idea was to move it through cables, but the problems they had to solve were: Where are the best places to stick cables? How many cables do we need? In addition, cables needed to be guided along the structure; how much room do we have to leave between each guide? They experimented with how the behaviour of soft manipulators can change dramatically, only changing these aspects.

The second demo was about soft grippers and modularity. As we said before, soft robot control can be very complex, so if we divide the problem into smaller problems, would it be easier to control a soft robot? This is the thinking behind a modular soft gripper. Participants were asked to assemble a soft gripper joining together different pieces..

Lastly everyone learned more about cobotics (collaborative robots) by using the soft gripper they assembled with a traditional gripper mounted on the robotic arm UR10. In this collaborative simulation, one person had to operate the soft gripper, another the robotic arm, and another the hard gripper.

Thanks to everyone who came to try out our masterclass!

Robots unite! Somerset families swarm to play our robot game

How do natural swarms interact and how can we use that to our benefit in robotics? Visitors to the first ever Somerscience, which took place in Bruton on the May Day bank holiday, found out the answers to these questions and more and became robot swarms themselves in our special TAS swarm game. Neshika, Suet, Razanne, Fern and Matimba from our swarm team gave an insight into their research, whilst guiding the visitors of all ages to their spot on the leaderboard. In small teams the human ‘robots’ and their controller were asked to move all the boxes to the landing zone- and figure out the rules for moving the different types of boxes as they went along. The team also showed videos of the swarm robots and posters detailing their work. Later our very own Sabine took to the stage to answer questions for a special edition of I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here. By the end of the day we had a winning time of 1 minute 45 seconds– and our demonstrators really enjoyed talking to interested and enthusiastic members of the public. 

Thanks to all the organisers and visitors on the day- if you’d like a robot swarm to descend on your event, do get in touch.

Hasta la vista baby: is it time to terminate the term ‘autonomous systems’?

In a new paper published in AI & Society: Knowledge, Culture and Communication, the TAS Functionality Node’s Helen Smith, Kerstin Eder and Jonathan Ives argue that using the term ‘autonomous’ to describe the capabilities of highly automated systems is misleading at best.

Drawing on examples from widely-know science fiction, the Cyberdyne Systems Model T-800 depicted in the Terminator and Terminator 2 films is presented as a great example of an adaptive system that demonstrates evolving functionality and decision-making. However, the authors observe that it can hardly be defined as autonomous when its overall goals and limitations are set by another agent, removing autonomy or ‘freedom of choice’ from its functionality.

The authors look at the implications of describing a system as autonomous, since in doing so we would be assigning moral agency to it. On this basis, the expectation would be that a system is a moral agent and therefore can be held responsible for bad decisions, which is simply not feasible (‘a computer cannot be fined or put in jail when a bad decision is made’ (Dignum et al, 2018, p.63)).

The authors conclude that the correct use of language to describe critical systems is vital to ensure responsibility for the systems’ decisions and actions is attributed to those designing, developing and operating these systems, rather than the systems themselves.

More information

Read the full paper:

This paper was led by Dr Helen Smith, a Research Associate in Engineering Ethics and Registered Nurse based in the Centre for Ethics in Medicine at the University of Bristol. Helen works as part of the TAS Node team bringing her expertise in the ethical and legal challenges of AI use in healthcare (and beyond).

TAS researchers head to a school in Somerset for an IET Faraday Challenge day

TAS Functionality node researchers are heading to a school in Somerset to help students with the Faraday Challenge. The Faraday Challenge is an initiative from the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and TAS Hub has organised for researchers from every one of the seven nodes to visit schools across the country. The Faraday Challenge Days gives students, aged 12-13 years old, the opportunity to research, design and make solutions to genuinely tough engineering problems. They have to plan, develop and present their solution, and complete an apprenticeship task related to the main challenge. The winners of the main event will be awarded a prize for each team member and a trophy for their school. The top teams from across the UK will be invited to showcase their ideas at an event in June.

Dr Razanne Abu-Aisheh and Dr Peter Winter will visit Norton Hill School, in Midsomer Norton, on Tuesday 25th April, and support two of the competing groups. At the end of the day the students will be given an interactive engineering demo for the school to keep. Check our twitter on the day for more updates!

Swarm Robotics heads to a field in Somerset for Somerscience

 We’re really excited to bring the team to Bruton for the 2023 edition of its Somerscience festival. Taking place on Monday 1st May, it’s a free event across the town with an exciting line-up of talks, workshops, shows and hands-on sessions. Running from 10am to 6pm it’s family-friendly and well connected to the region by transport. Our swarm team are looking forward to bringing swarm robotics to a muddy field in Somerset: do join us!

Our team, a mixture of researchers and PhD students, all have one thing in common: their love for swarm robotics. Join them as they introduce you to a game where you get to be the robot swarm. Explore how we’re using swarm behaviour to introduce a new way of using robots, as you get to have a go yourself. Talk to the team themselves to hear about their research and how its involved in health and other applications. There’s a lot to see and do throughout the day. No need to book but for more information, including a programme, please visit their website. Follow us on twitter for updates.

Masterclasses in Swarm, Soft and Aerial Robotics

Please note the event dates have passed.

Organised by the UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems (TAS) Node in Functionality on behalf of the UKRI TAS Programme, the Masterclasses in Swarm, Soft and Aerial Robotics provide developers, operators, end users and researchers with an opportunity for hands-on experience with a range of autonomous and robotic technologies that can be deployed in the logistics, manufacturing and infrastructure industries.

Participants work with university researchers to try out and explore the capabilities of the latest technologies in swarm robotics, soft robotics and aerial robotics (drones) via an interactive ‘teaching and doing’ format.

There are opportunities to explore future avenues for the use of these technologies in the context of your own work, with the TAS Node sponsoring a number of follow-on short student research projects in summer 2023.


The masterclasses were held in-person in April and May 2023 at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, an internationally recognised Centre of Excellence in Robotics run in partnership between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE).


Note: The Masterclasses scheduled for 2023 have been held and we are no longer accepting new applications to attend.


Masterclass in Swarm, Soft and Aerial Robotics: Future technologies for logistics, manufacturing and smart infrastructure (pdf)

Wednesday 19 April 2023
10:00 Arrival & registration
10:15 Introductory talks
11:00 Lab tours and technology demos
12:00 Lunch break
13:00 Parallel Workshops: 1.Soft Robotics 2.Swarm Robotics 3.Aerial Robotics
15:00 Discussion: Ways forward – Future work & collaboration
15:30 Networking
16:00 End

Masterclass in Swarm Robotics: Future technologies for logistics, manufacturing and smart infrastructure (pdf)

Thursday 4 May 2023
10:00 Arrival & registration
10:15 Introductory talks
11:00 Swarm Robotics Workshop
13:00 Lunch & Networking
14:00 End

Organising Committee

From the University of Bristol’s TAS Functionality Node:

  • Shane Windsor
  • Sabine Hauert
  • Jonathan Rossiter
  • Katie Drury
  • Miranda Addey

Related links

Prize-winning presentation on regulatory frameworks for future nanomedicines

Matimba Swana presenting her PhD research at GFBR 2022

PhD student, Matimba Swana, was awarded best Pecha Kucha presentation prize at the Global Forum on Bioethics in Research (GFBR 2022) after successfully summarising her entire PhD project in 5 minutes!

Matimba’s PhD focusses on how to build regulations for nanoswarms for future nanomedicine clinical trials in the UK, Europe and US. The research aims to consider the regulatory requirements in advance of the technology being ready for in-human testing.

Cancer nanomedicines can be used as drug carriers that can target tumours more effectively with anti-cancer agents, whilst leaving healthy body tissues untouched. The technology will use swarm behaviour design to improve performance, while avoiding side effects, culminating in an intelligent drug delivery system.

Matimba’s work studies how the classification of nanoswarm technologies as drug delivery systems will influence the regulatory requirements set in each country of use. Consideration of this categorisation alongside the guiding AI principles and ethical concerns will ensure an effective regulatory framework is developed ready for in-human drug testing.

This work was presented as part of the GFBR 2022 conference programme, organised by the World Health Organization, Wellcome and South African Medical Research Council. The event focussed on the topic of ethics of AI in global health research, bringing together ethicists, policy-makers, researchers, clinicians, computer scientists and healthcare workers from across the world to discuss how traditional research ethics regulatory frameworks have responded to the rapid advances in AI technology. ‘Trustworthiness’ featured as a key consideration in the conversation.

Matimba’s presentation was one of ten ‘Pecha Kucha‘ presentations held during the event. This rapid story-telling format is often favoured at academic conferences to give early career researchers an opportunity to spotlight their research widely to delegates before a networking or poster session.

Well done to Matimba on a successful presentation and award!

Find out more

You can read more about Matimba’s PhD work and sign up as a volunteer to talk about ethics and regulations on our Swarm Study page.

Call for Participation: The First International Symposium on Trustworthy Autonomous Systems 2023 (TAS ‘23)

The First International Symposium on Trustworthy Autonomous Systems 2023 (TAS ‘23) | 11-12 July 2023 | Edinburgh, UK

Call for participation | Submissions

UKRI TAS Hub LogoThe UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems (TAS) Hub has invited submissions on novel and creative multidisciplinary research projects focused on trustworthy autonomous systems and their responsible development, for the First International Symposium on Trustworthy Autonomous Systems 2023 (TAS ‘23).

The TAS ’23 symposium will include a networking event for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and travel grants will be available for ECRs.

Full-paper submissions and poster abstracts that take a multidisciplinary approach to address the challenges of designing, building, and deploying Trustworthy Autonomous Systems are invited. Contributions should consider social, legal, ethical, and technical issues and their impacts on individuals, society, and the economy.

Important dates

  • Paper submissions due: *Extended to 8 March 2023*
  • Poster submissions due: 15 March 2023
  • Notifications: May 2023 (TBC)
  • Camera ready due: May 2023 (TBC)
  • TAS ’23 Symposium: 11–12 July 2023

More information

To read the call for participation and submissions information in full, visit


Functionality research showcase at FUTURES 2022

Last week our Ethics and Regulation researchers participated in the FUTURES 2022 Schools Research Fair in the SS Great Britain’s dockyard in Bristol. They joined research teams from the Universities of Bristol and Bath each showing interactive exhibits aimed to excite young children about the wide range of research across the University’s portfolio.

At the TAS Functionality Node stand, children from local primary and secondary schools were asked to consider a number of questions, such as:

“Should there be a human driver present ready to take-over in an autonomous car?”
“Should online medical advice provided by AI inform users they are communicating with a non-human?”
“Should self-driving cars be as safe or safer than the average human driver?”

Ideas were collated into a word cloud (pictured) summarising the range of feelings participants expressed about trusting and regulating autonomous technologies.

Dr Arianna Manzini, Research Associate in Ethics of Autonomous Systems, who led the exhibition said:

“We are grateful to all the schools who participated. It was fantastic to see so many children engaging with our questions and sharing their views about the future of robotics!”

The Schools Research Fair was held as part of the FUTURES 2022 festival of discovery taking place at venues across the South West of the UK this Autumn. The overall ambition of this series of free events is to provide multiple opportunities for the public to find out about innovative, world-class research that universities are leading on across the region. The focus is on interactivity and fun, bringing research to life to inspire others to get involved or learn more.

Our participation in the event formed part of a series of outreach events planned for the whole TAS Functionality Node Programme. Follow us on Twitter @tas_function or via our Events listings on this site to be the first to hear about future events.

Wordcloud of feedback from participants
Word cloud generated by survey responses
Photo of the TAS Functionality Node exhibition at FUTURES 2022
Our exhibition stand at FUTURES 2022

Recycling materials in soft robotics

It’s important for all fields to consider their environmental impact, and robotics doesn’t currently have a rich history of research into sustainability. In this recent paper Professor Rossiter, Dr Partridge and Dr Manzini, from our TAS Functionality Node, demonstrate their research into reducing the waste for soft robotics.

The need for soft bodies and actuators in this field leads to the use of large amounts of silicon, rubber and other elastomers, which isn’t normally recycled. In the paper the authors present a non-chemical process to recycle and reuse these elastomeric materials, which, as well as decreasing the amount the harmful waste, has the extra benefits of minimising the amount of new material needed and lowering costs. The material from old and broken soft actuators was ground into granules ranging from 1mm in diameter to 3mm in diameter and used to create new soft actuators without loss of function. Characterisation tests showed that although some functionality reduced with the percentage of recycled material, the silicone composites exhibited very comparable elastic properties to the pristine silicone.

The authors propose that these materials could then form a pipeline where every time they’re recycled they’re used in lower and lower risk applications. This technique could also help other fields reduce their waste.

Watch this short video to see the research in action:

Access the full paper: ReRobot: Recycled Materials for Trustworthy Soft Robots

And please do leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you!