What's inside a Dalek?

04 April 2011

A working robot controlled by a slime mould, and designed and built in ECS-Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, will play a starring role in a major BBC4/Discovery Channel feature to be aired this Autumn

You’d be wrong if you thought it was a jobbing actor because the answer is in fact, slime.

A working robot controlled by a slime mould, and designed and built in ECS-Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, will play a starring role in a major BBC4/Discovery Channel feature to be aired this Autumn.

A production team from BBC Scotland spent a day in ECS filming with Dr. Klaus-Peter Zauner and Dr. Soichiro Tsuda, who developed the robot. Its central innovation is that it features a biochip that encapsulates a plasmodial cell of the slime mould Physarum polycephalum that is used to control the robot’s movements.

An electronic interface enables the slime mould cell to be connected to a computer in order to monitor local mechanical oscillations in the cell and it also provides stimulation for the slime mould with light signals, causing the movement of the robot.

Dr. Tsuda told the programme presenter, Dr. George McGavin, that his inspiration for the robot had come from Dr Who’s Daleks. “It’s amazing that something that lives on dead trees can be used to control a machine,” said Dr. McGavin.

Physarum polycephalum has been used by Dr. Zauner in research projects which have included research students and undergraduates in ECS over a number of years. Gareth Jones, now a PhD student in ECS, developed the drive system of the robot in his Part III project and Paul Macey developed the electronic interface to the slime mould cell in his Part III project.

Physarum is a popular model-organism in unconventional computing. It processes information from its environment in a distributed fashion that is not yet well understood.

Dr. Zauner commented: “There was a time when people in hot-air balloons looked at pigeons and realised that there is a radically different solution to the problem of flight. Now we marvel at nature's molecular computers that tell us there are radically different solutions to the problem of information processing. To harvest the potential of molecular computing, however, we need a generation of engineers with a broad concept of computation. I am therefore particularly pleased that the most important component of this robot was developed by an undergraduate; Paul Macey.”

The BBC/Discovery television feature has the working title ‘Afterlife’. It will examine many different aspects of decomposition and decay, including the complexity of organisms that are associated with decomposition, as well as exploring our attitudes to bacteria and the breakdown of bio-systems.


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