Biologically inspired transportation: a distributed intelligent conveyor

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Environment and Technology


A parallel manipulator is a massive array of simple individual actuators with a small power density that collectively transport and position objects with masses considerably higher than the force generated by a single actuator alone. This design is inspired by the biological phenomena of cilia, small hair-like structures on the surface of cells which can either sense local properties such as in the rod photoreceptors for vision or in olfactory neurons for smell, or can move in coordinated wave action to move liquid over their surface, as in the trachea and kidneys. Employing these capabilities in an analogous array of micro-actuators will produce a conveyor of parallel intelligent manipulation able to sense object properties, move them in different directions and effectively sort objects according to their properties. Crucially, the actuator array will be capable of communicating local information about objects to other parts of the array to enable coordinated action.Parallel intelligent manipulation plays an increasingly important role in intelligent robotics, computer science and intelligent manufacturing systems. Significant advantages of the distributed manipulating system are task flexibility (it can be dynamically reprogrammed to implement another task); massive-parallelism (it can process several different objects simultaneously, and different parts of the manipulator can perform separate tasks concurrently); fault tolerance (faults in single actuators do not restrict performance of the system as a whole, so operation of the system can be maintained); autonomy; and the ability to process objects simultaneously and independently.The overarching aim of the project is to build an intelligent autonomous massively parallel manipulator for distributed sensing, recognition, analysis, sorting, transportation and manipulation of light-weight objects. A paradigm of reaction-diffusion computing, i.e. information processing and computation by spreading wave-patterns in non-linear media, will be employed in the control system of the manipulator.Using evolutionary computation and machine learning, we will develop new principles and implementations for non-linear medium based control, and introduce a range of algorithms for distributed sensing (of object properties such as shape), filtration (sorting different objects according to common characteristics), orienting (ensure objects are facing and moving in the correct direction), positioning (moving objects into the correct path of travel on a different part of the manipulator) and shape-determined transportation of the objects.This manipulator system not only has the potential to impact upon the academic community in terms of the advancement of evolutionary algorithms, reaction-diffusion computing, and intelligent robotic systems, but also has ready application domains in industry such as high-tech manufacturing, enabling an advanced network of sensors to control dynamics of mechanical components, automation of assembly of nano-devices, and medical applications such as prostheses and computer controlled implants.

Planned Impact

The hardware prototype of an intelligent parallel manipulator and a model of the manipulator will be developed as the result of the project. The prototype and its software twin will be available to the industrial community in the UK and abroad for further study, modifications and production of micro-scale analogues. The following domains of science and industry will benefit from the results of the project: developers of distributed smart engineering systems will get mechanical and electronic designs and distributed control procedures for non-standard adaptable fault-tolerant actuators; blueprints for fabrication of autonomous intelligent actuating devices; fully scalable architecture of universal distributed manipulator to be used in smart-structures; MEMS devices are a promising application domain for the new technology of interlayer conductors in MEMS production. Beneficiaries in the industrial sector could not take immediate advantage of this prototype of a smart parallel actuator; however, the design of the parallel actuator will be a 'proof-of-concept' of intelligent distributed control and will be priceless in further engineering implementations of smart conveyor belts, and related applications. Currently the UK Government has as a priority high value manufacturing and sustainable materials and products ( The development of this prototype could lead to implementation on an industrial manufacturing scale enabling UK industry to achieve unparalleled precision in large scale manufacturing, introduce intelligent automated systems capable of participating in not just the movement of assembly parts but the precise manipulation and construction of high-tech equipment even at the nano-scale. In the current economic climate, such a development would place UK manufacturing at the forefront globally and ensure a solid foundation for the future employment and skills of the UK. The developments in control manipulation could be applied in the medical area such as remote surgery, fine manipulation of surgical instruments, or manipulation of surgical implants to ensure precise placement. Indeed, in the public sector, fine sorting of historical and often delicate artefacts could benefit from such robust technology without the sometimes corrosive contact with human hands that can arise form the transfer of skin bacteria, salts and oils to artefacts. Communication and Dissemination Engagement of these potential user markets will be achieved through publication of results in trade magazines such as IET publication Engineering and Technology , engagement at conferences with potential industrial partners, as well as employing the networks currently active across the research team. UWE and BRL specifically have a track record of Public Engagement and Science Communication activities including the EPSRC Stage Award Walking with Robots and Heart Robot , as well as organising events at the Cheltenham Science Festival and others. The project team will ensure that opportunities for engaging with potential users and beneficiaries are identified and fully exploited. A budget of 500 has been included to cover some of these additional costs.


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ELLA GALE (2014) Preface in Int. Journ. of Unconventional Computing

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Georgilas I (2012) Advances in Autonomous Robotics

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Giannaccini M (2013) A variable compliance, soft gripper in Autonomous Robots

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Ioannis Georgilas (Author) (2013) UAV Horizon Tracking using Memristors and Cellular Automata Visual Processing in Towards Autonomous Robotic Systems (TAROS) 2013, Oxford

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Ioannis Georgilas (Author) (2013) Metachronal waves in Cellular Automata: Cilia-like manipulation in actuator arrays. in VI International Workshop on Nature Inspired Cooperative Strategies for Optimization

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Ioannis Georgilas (Author) (2013) Manipulating with excitations: Waves or gliders? in Workshop on Unconventional Approaches to Robotics, Automation and Control, at International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2013, Karlsruhe, Germany

Description We developed a cellular automaton architecture for massive-parallel manipulation tasks. The cellular-automaton manipulator is an array of actuators, which interact locally with each other and generate coordinated manipulation forces for precise translation of the manipulated object. The cellular-automation actuator arrays behave as an excitable medium, where initial perturbation leads to propagation of excitation waves. The excitation waves are physically mapped onto the hardware actuation waves. We analysed different types of excitation and manipulation patterns and physical implementations of the actuating surface.

Research publications can be found on and our publicly visible in
Exploitation Route Our smart actuating surfaces can be used in micro-assembly industry, haptic screens and other robotics applications
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description The findings were used to develop novel prototypes of two-dimensional autonomous manipulating surfaces
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Electronics,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services