Research - Improving the security, privacy and safety of data sharing in robotic swarm operations

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For the very first time, the synergy between swarm robotics and blockchain technology was explored in BROS, an MSCA project. Eduardo Castello Ferrer tells us more.

Having extensive experience and a passion for robotics, blockchain technology and complex systems, Eduardo Castello Ferrer took up the post of MSCA Postdoctoral Fellow in the Human Dynamics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, working with MIT professor Alex Pentland.

“Our focus in the BROS project was to conduct research into the combination of swarm robotic systems and blockchain technology to implement new security, behaviour and business models for distributed robotic systems by using novel cryptographic methods,” explains Eduardo.

Combining two techniques to solve current problems

Swarms of robots are increasingly becoming more important in academic research and have the potential to revolutionise real-world applications such as logistics and transport systems thanks to the help of technological advancements like cloud computing. Researchers and engineers in the field, however, understand that the characteristics that make swarm robotic systems ideal for future applications like robot autonomy, collective emergent behaviour and decentralised control actually hamper the transfer of the technology from academic institutions to the public sphere of real-world problems. “It is great to have systems that have emergent capabilities, decentralised control, are fault tolerant, etc. However, when things go wrong, how do you stop such systems?”

“Additionally, I realised that nobody was talking about the necessary steps needed to bridge the gap between these two sides of the spectrum: Academia and industry. For instance, new security and business models need to be in place before any realistic deployment of the technology can take place,” notes Eduardo.

This is where blockchain – an emerging technology that originated in the Bitcoin field – comes in. It offers much promise to provide the required capabilities to make robotic swarm operations more secure, autonomous, flexible and even profitable.

Key achievements of the project

“During the first two years of BROS, we designed, analysed and programmed several models and methods that combined blockchain-based technology with robotics software and hardware” highlights Eduardo. Then, during the last year of BROS, the developed models and methods were validated in real-robot systems through a series of realistic experiments.

“It turns out that blockchain-based cryptographic tools, for example, a Merkle tree which is a fundamental technology in the blockchain space, are a promising way to make swarms of robots more secure while keeping interesting properties such as modularity, emergent behaviour, fault tolerance, etc.,” confirms Eduardo. Therefore, blockchain technology could help open the door to new technical approaches and business models that make swarm robotics suitable for various industrial applications.

“In other words, we have proven the viability of combining both techniques to solve current problems in the field from theoretical and practical perspectives.”

As a new set of possibilities emerged from mixing the two technologies, the project realised that a community of researchers, scientists, artists, etc. had to be created from scratch. “We understood that the best way to create such a community was to organise a couple of academic events that could be used as a gathering point,” outlines Eduardo. As a result, a new academic community in the field of blockchain robotics arose.

The support to move forward

“During my MSCA Fellowship, which allowed me to pass the first two years at MIT, I was in contact with several research groups pioneering what we know now as the ‘blockchain’ ecosystem. I was really fortunate to spend time with such talented people because with their help, I developed the theoretical models of the BROS project,” emphasises Eduardo. The MSCA Fellow was then able to test the developed models in real-world robots at the Université libre de Bruxelles. “I think the combination of theory and practice in two different continents was key to the success of the project.”

Since the completion of the project, Eduardo has published high-quality work that can be found on his website. He has also organised the first public academic events in the field of blockchain-based technology for robotics. “From this, my citation level increased more than fourfold. I will now start to look for my next position in academia as a researcher by making use of the network of contacts created during the project.”

Jennifer Wills
MCAA Editorial Team

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