“When a member of the swarm breaks down, the operational impact and cost are minimum, but more importantly, the humans and the remaining swarm members have the flexibility to adapt when a sudden change happens in the environment,” said Prof Abbass.

When a virus enters a body, many white cells wrap themselves around the virus to neutralise it. None of the individual white cells on its own is sufficient to get rid of the virus. It seems that nature relies on the idea of a group to solve complex problems that individuals can’t solve on their own.

What if the group is a mix of humans, a large number of micro vehicles, and many pieces of smart software; can we design this large team to be cheap and effective in solving complex problems? Can many simple pieces of software logic be smarter than one large and very complicated piece of logic?

Prof Hussein Abbass at UNSW Canberra’s School of Engineering and Information Technology is investigating these questions to help ensure delivering smarter systems by designing a swarm of simple ones and without paying a fortune or creating too complicated systems that are impossible to maintain or sustain.

“Remember when you see in the news how a whole village was destroyed after a hurricane or how innocent families get trapped in a bushfire, you would wonder why despite that all the advances in robotics and artificial intelligence research that you read about in the newspaper we still can’t help enough in these situations?” asks Prof. Abbass.

Prof. Abbass looks at “human-swarm teaming”: technologies that bring together humans and many simple autonomous systems to solve complex problems like the one described above.

To find victims, we need a large number of entities to work together. Micro unmanned aerial vehicles capable to fly inside narrow corridors. Small underwater vehicles to swim under the flood to see victims who could be lying below the water. Humans who know best how humans feel and react to help in guiding these systems to find and rescue victims without exposing themselves to the full danger lying ahead.

“We have all these technologies today, but we have not solved the puzzle on how to glue them together to be smart, safe and trustworthy,” said Prof. Abbass.

“We spend so much money and effort to design complex machines and software logics that are expensive, hard to maintain, difficult to allocate quickly to areas where the natural disaster happened, and if we use them and they get broken, we need another fortune to buy or build new ones not to mention the precious time we lose in between”.

Prof. Abbass is looking at designing cheap and simple, but smart enough logic. When a large number of these simple machines are put together as a Swarm and with a group of humans working with them to augment them with human intelligence, the whole is powerful and adaptable, can do more, but the cost is much cheaper than the alternative.

“When a member of the swarm breaks down, the operational impact and cost are minimum, but more importantly, the humans and the remaining swarm members have the flexibility to adapt when a sudden change happens in the environment,” said Prof. Abbass.

“The humans and the swarm form an eco-system. It needs a new generation of artificial intelligence technologies to help them to work effectively and safely. UNSW-Canberra trusted autonomy group is designing that.”