Episode V: English & Swarm Robotics

In this episode, we hear from Guillermo from Spain about a relatively new area of robotics: swarm robotics, and the inspiration behind research into this area. Swarm Robotics seeks to apply natural collective behaviour seen in groups of insects and other animals to create intelligent solutions with groups of robots.


Intro: The Natural English Podcast: Success stories from beyond the English language barrier. Follow along with the transcript linked in the description.

Nahum - Natural: Hello and welcome to the Natural English podcast. My name is Nahum, and if this is your first time listening, be sure to check out the transcript, vocabulary list and homework activities that we have, the link is in the description. And today I'm joined by an old friend. Sounds a bit strange to say an old friend because I'm only twenty six, but a great friend from university. Guillermo, welcome. Welcome to the podcast.

Guillermo: Thanks very much, Nahum, glad to be here.

Nahum - Natural: I've not said to Guillermo, but we're going to leave out any embarrassing stories from from university.

Guillermo: That's a shame.

Nahum - Natural: There are a few I think we each probably have something to say about each other.

Guillermo: Absolutely, yes.

Nahum - Natural: So Guillermo, where are you from and where are you based?

Guillermo: I'm originally from Bilbao. It's a city in northern Spain, in the Basque Country. And I lived until I was 18. So most of my life, I guess, and at the moment I am based in Barcelona. So still in Spain. I'm doing a master's degree at the Biotechnic University of Catalonia. And yeah, that's what I'm doing at the moment.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah. And we met in Manchester. So you've also had experience abroad for quite a lot of your life.

Guillermo: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That was a good time actually, those three years in Manchester because I did that year abroad in California, remember.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah.

Guillermo: Yeah. And actually I think helped me with my... since it is the natural language podcast... I should mention that my English got a little better during that time. So yeah it helps, it helps to go abroad.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, I was just saying to Guillermo before we started recording, his accent is very British, when we first met, it was the more American variation, but over time he's kind of changed it to British.

Guillermo: I was actually very shocked you mentioned that because I haven't lived in the UK for a while now, so I'm glad to hear that I'm still keeping it up.

Nahum - Natural: Just watching Peaky Blinders or something.

Guillermo: Or just some old Top Gear episodes or QI.

Nahum - Natural: Great. Well, you've mentioned you're doing a Masters, so it's a really interesting field. I've done a bit of research in preparation for the podcast. So can you tell us about the field of research that you're in? Yeah.

Guillermo: So swarm robotics is the study of groups, the robots that consist of single agents that can interact with each other, with environment surrounding them. And by doing so, the swarm can have this collective behaviour. So think of, for example, a flock of birds or a school fish in these scenarios, each of the agents, which are individuals, that is a single fish or a single bird, has no idea what the entire group is doing itself, but they can observe what those odd agents or individuals around them is doing. And by applying a few simple behaviours, they can lead to all these interesting patterns. But then see if you go into the countryside and you'll see these phosphors merging and floating around in very, quite mesmerising way. And the same same goes for schools of fish. So what we're doing through robotics is to draw inspiration from those from those social animals or insects like ants or bees. And we'll try to apply that to robotics to perform a series of collective tasks.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, I mean, I should say as well, a swarm. If anyone's unfamiliar with the word swarm itself, it's like a for a big, big group, usually insects. But I think for swarm robotics, it's as you mentioned, it's not just necessarily how insects behave, but all kind of, all of nature.

Guillermo: Oh, yeah, definitely. So insects are a very good example because they do very many interesting tasks collectively. You think of the colony of ants, they will they will forage food items from the surroundings. They can they can find very large items and then they can they can get together the small group of ants to lift it or just push it back to the nest. And they can also build bridges to connect to spots that are separated. And all these interesting things. You've got to think of termites that build mounds by using saliva. But then all the animals mentioned. fish and birds, they also exhibit this these very interesting behaviours that can try to map into robotics.

Nahum - Natural: I was listening to a video which is available in the homework if anyone wants to listen to it. And it was talking about the benefits of swarm robotics. So if you have one hundred robots and two or three malfunction, the task still continues. It's kind of you don't "put all your eggs in one basket" when you have a swarm of robots, what other kind of benefits do you think there are?

Guillermo: Well, so what you mentioned is definitely one of the main interests of swarms. And there's others, for instance, swarms are supposed to be what we say is scalable so a swarm, should be independent of how many robots are composing it. So, I mean, so long as you get to a minimum swarm size to be for it to be able to be called a swarm your agent should be able to perform the task they need to perform, regardless of whether they are 20 robots, 25, 50. Obviously, that leads to some other the difficulties. But all in all, that's that's idea. And also because they interact locally, they are also flexible. So they they can behave, they can perform in different environments, even if even if the the train is different and they can tackle various tasks as well. But yeah, the robustness that you mentioned earlier is definitely one of the crucial points of being able to remove robots and they will still perform, which is awesome.

Nahum - Natural: It takes out the risk factor of certain activities and your kind of project. So I understand you working in a team in kind of layman's terms, what what is the the objective of your research?

Guillermo: Well, at the moment, what I'm trying to do is to get a set of robots. Well, technically they aren't just robots, but I think that's irrelevant to what I'm trying to get is a set of robots to do this foraging of large items that I mentioned earlier. So I want to make them leave the next area, try to find these large items that any single robot cannot carry and they're supposed to recruit other agents round them. And all together, they're supposed to lift this item and bring it back and to do so I'm using some very, very interesting what we call evolutionary techniques. So you take your algorithms and then you apply evolution to them and your initial algorithm, which obviously does not do what you want to do, will end up doing exactly what you want to do or something very close to it, which is just the objective.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, I think it's fascinating where I live and there's lots of ants, leaf cutting ants. And recently I've just sat and watched their behavior and how they are able to move around each other, kind of effortlessly. And another of the examples that was on the video, the homework, was I think you mentioned it actually, that some insects build bridges with their own bodies so that others can kind of cross that gap. It's kind of it's fascinating to watch how that happens.

Guillermo: Absolutely. And you mentioned leaf cutting ants and I believe you then have a very interesting recruitment method. I think they use the pincers to to make noise and actually attract people, uh people, attract other ants! That will help them carry...

Nahum - Natural: Man eating ants. I wouldn't be so close to them. But maybe that was it. They made the sound and I just I was drawn to them, just sat watching them.

Guillermo: Definitely. That must have been it.

Nahum - Natural: Great well, for anyone who's maybe thinking about going into robotics in the future, maybe they’re a lower level of study at the moment, but they're looking to maybe specialize. What sort of resources or advice would you give to them?

Guillermo: Well, is there a lot of the resources that allow you to learn robotics are already online and you can access them very easily. Surely the most cutting edge research will require some specialized knowledge, but you can get tons of websites. There's, for instance, Robohub.org they collect articles and post from all these different sources into one single site, the source of one called the robot reports. If you want more news about industrial applications and robotics, and basically you can you can go on Google search engine if you like, and find all these different sites that collect news about robotics. But then if you want to, for instance, DIY robotics or projects, you can just go and Reddit and you'll find tons of people posting updates and different items. They try to get RC cars, for instance, or drones. There's a huge drone community out there and it's become it's become a huge hobby nowadays. And people are very invested in endurance. You guys go on YouTube and you can check out online courses, that's for sure. If you're looking to actually getting some knowledge on robotics, perhaps more in the scientific base of robotics than online resources courses are very, very useful. I actually took a few before I started this master's degree and, you know, they’re very interesting for some for some basic introduction to things.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, awesome. It's good. You gave some specific sites as well. I'll be sure to put them into the lesson for people to access too.

Guillermo: Also loads of cities have local robotics clubs, for instance, maybe schools or universities or maybe even local businesses that put up some benches and they have perhaps some robotic platforms there for people to play with or 3D printers and things about. So make sure you check the results to see if there's anything in your area that could be interesting.

Nahum - Natural: Very cool. Very cool. And thinking a bit more about your English language as we're an English school. Clearly, it's been a big part of getting to where you are today with your study abroad. And you're currently doing a Masters with you have team based in different countries. So, yeah, what's the most important thing for someone who is in the robotics field in terms of their language? How do you mostly use English?

Guillermo: Well, I feel like in science and technology, English has become the default language in absolutely everything there is to say or articles or most articles are published in English, international conferences are in English. If if you go online courses, most of them will be in English as well. And of course, the terminology will be in English most of the time. So I feel like if you get into if you really want to get to any of these fields, having a good grasp of the languages is fundamental and definitely helps even in and most laboratories, regardless of the country you're in, since the community will be so international, English is the default language. Even if it's here in Spain or France, Switzerland

Nahum - Natural: Yeah really is essential. People might think that your English became amazing when you were in the U.K. but actually when we met, you arrived from Spain, you were already speaking really, really well. And your… particularly your accent, I have to say, is a beautiful British accent. I'm sure a lot of people will envy that accent. So specifically on pronunciation, which is perhaps something that isn't always a priority, but is really nice to be able to have a great accent like yourself if someone wants to practice their pronunciation. What what have you found useful for that?

Guillermo: Well, I think when we try to learn a new language the pronunciation part is perhaps trickiest because it requires a lot of confidence. Sometimes you feel a bit embarrassed about what you're trying to say and therefore you don't really try to do the best as you possibly could. But it is really important to just get yourself out there and do it and just try to pronounce as well as you possibly can. But also there's parts that is just the conscious effort to try to emulate what you see others do. At least that was in my case, particularly during my first year I remember a lot of attention due to you and the other British people were saying, because sometimes when you're just learning at home, you you fail to realize all these little differences between what you try and say, what you're saying and what they say. They being you, the natives. So actually thinking about these things and trying to emulate them yourself is is really important. I think I think it was for me.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah. I just remembered that some of you guys in the house where we stayed used to complain because I was speaking to myself in the shower. I don't know if you remember that but...

Guillermo: Oh, definitley, I definitley remembered that, that was hilarious.

Nahum - Natural: Mostly in Spanish. But yeah, I just to add to it, I honestly think speaking to yourself is... I recommend it. It's a great way to actually practice pronunciation, create your own scenarios in your head, use the language and you can put… putting emotion into language is also something I recommend people do, try being angry in the shower, try being impressed in the shower. Things like that seem to help.

Guillermo: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I've done that too, loads of times. I just I didn't I didn't do it so publicly as you did which was so awesome. Yeah, but definitely useful thing to talk as much as you can.

Nahum - Natural: Great. And what's next for you? I mean, you go into the robotics field. What what's your what's your next step after the Masters?

Guillermo: Well, my idea is to continue doing research, try to get a PHD in robotics after this which will take some four years to complete so, it'd be ideal to actually start developing new applications for the field and try to try to make some awesome improvements and exciting developments. So obviously, I'll try to stick to swarm robotics, which is probably what I'd like to do. Yeah. And we'll see in a few years. We'll see how that works.

Nahum - Natural: I understand it's it's relatively new. It's a relatively new area of robotics.

Guillermo: Absolutely yeah, a lot of the departments not being made are still pretty fundamental. As in you'll find very few actual applications in an industry of swarm robotics platforms. So a lot of the results of research is going into how can we actually put all this knowledge that we've been gathering in academia , you know, how can we make it all safe and reliable so that we can start using all these cool things we've been doing?

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, it's the future, right. People will start maybe seeing it in use more and more.

Guillermo: I very much hope so.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, well you hope so because then you're guaranteed a job in the future, right.

Guillermo: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Nahum - Natural: Great. Well, Guillermo, thank you so much for sharing what I think is a fascinating topic about swarm robotics and something that people can expect to see more of in the future. And also a bit about English and the resources which people can check out to find out more so. Thanks so much for your time.

Guillermo: No problem man, it was fun. It was fun to talk again with you and glad to hear that people can be interested in swarms as well.

Nahum - Natural: Perfect. And for anyone listening remember that if you'd like to study this conversation and understand fully everything that was discussed, you can go to the website and check out the homework for the next podcast, which will prepare you with vocabulary ready for the next time. Goodbye.

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