Animal‌ and‌ robot‌ Societies‌ ‌Self-organise‌
and‌ Integrate‌ by‌ Social‌ Interaction‌ (bees‌ and‌ fish)‌

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During the last decade, it has been shown that groups of robots can be socially accepted by animals and can participate in their collective decision making. It works, for example, with cockroaches, honeybees, various fish species and rats. If robots can become social companions of animals, can they go further and even enhance the collective behaviors of animals? Can robots allow the animals to do things that the animals cannot do by themselves alone? For example, can animals communicate over long distances via telecommunication systems like the Internet? Can the animals communicate and interact with species that they would never encounter in their natural ecosystem?

The members* of the European Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) project ASSISIbf have been working on the creation of ICT systems that can interface with groups of animals. In particular, two types of robots that can integrate groups of honeybees and zebrafish respectively have been designed, and the interaction and decision-making mechanisms within these groups have been studied. Physical models of collective behavior have also been created. These models are implemented on the robots to create mixed groups in which robots and animals can interact in closed loop and in a parsimonious way, demonstrating how collective decision-making can emerge through self-organisation.

These two robotic systems have allowed us to set up an experiment that is a first of its kind: a long distance interspecies collective behavior. Indeed, the study published in the journal Science Robotics shows how the two types of robots connected and sharing information through the Internet, allow the two groups of animals – zebrafish and honeybees – with different behaviors and evolving in completely different environments to interact remotely and make decisions together.

This experiment shows that self-organized systems are not limited to confined space, but that, by using current technological tools, such as robots and the Internet, we can study how complex self-organized systems can take place on a small- and/or large-scale, in greater detail than before. We can consider local scales of some particular species in their ecosystem, long distance scales through the telecom networks, or interspecies scales from water, land and air.

Here, we performed the experiments in laboratories but one can envision, in the future, being able to insert such robots within groups of animals in the wild. On the one hand, we could exploit the unrivaled perception capabilities of the living systems, their rich behavioral repertoires and their ease to move in the wild. On the other hand, we could influence their choices and add new physical properties like telecommunication and other robotic capacities. This approach could also provide a way to studying information flow in ecosystems and natural phenomena such as cascade effects among groups or species.


The two mixed groups created in the framework of the ASSISIbf project, i.e. zebrafish and fish-robots and honeybees and bee-robots, can now interact remotely and collaborate to reach a consensus together.

This approach could also be generalized to other living species, such as plants, fungi or even microorganisms, to allow systems to interact at very different scales. Some examples already exist with robots interacting with a single species, for example, with plants or yeast cells that are linked to intelligent systems running on computers or robots.

Using the framework that was developed during the FET ASSISIbf project, one can envision future capabilities in which the robotic systems would be able to learn and to adapt their behavior to animal species. We have already begun to explore these possibilities in the two separate bio-hybrid systems. We produced some preliminary results by using continuous real-time adaptation of multi-level behavioural models by evolutionary algorithms. We envision robotic systems that can, by themselves, discover new properties of bio-hybrid artificial intelligence towards building mixed living and computing devices, where robots could autonomously evolve among animals. These mixed groups could be put to work for environmental monitoring and interacting with organisms in the wild. The animals could also help robots to collectively solve problems.

More details about this study

Videos describing the project and this particular experiment:

Robots creating new ecological linkage – A possible future method to repair damaged ecosystems

EU FET project ASSISIbf – Bees and fish communicate via robots

*List of the labs and contact persons

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, LSRO, Francesco Mondada,

Université Paris Diderot, LIED UMR 8236, José Halloy,

Universidade de Lisboa, Ciências, MAS-BioISI,

University of Zagreb, Laboratory of Robotics and Intelligent Control Systems, Stjepan Bogdan,

University of Graz, Artificial Life Laboratory, Thomas Schmickl,

With more than 105000 visitors this years’ festival, held from 6. to 10. of September 2018 in Linz, ARS ELECTRONICA broke the record! Guided tours in 13 different languages swarmed the place at the POSTCITY venue were the project’s installation was situated, free to visit for the public.

The ASSISIbf team was super-busy to present the projects goal to the interested public, having live symbiotic computation of bees, fish and robots on site, as well as hands-on encounters with the problem of finding „minimum independent dominating sets“ in graphs on tablet computers. The visitors could this way learn about mathematical problems with real world applications, and could even try to solve the problems posed to the bio-hybrid system themselves.

Following are some impressions of the festival:



(c) Tom Mesic

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(c) Tom Mesic







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Symbiotic computation of bio-hybrid systems
Bees, fish and robots solve difficult network problems together

POSTCITY Linz, Austria, September 6-10 2018

ASSISIbf is all about creating a new symbiosis among honeybees, zebrafish and robot swarms. The developed bio-hybrid system uses an unconventional approach to solve difficult network problems.

Networks are ubiquitous in our world today and are growing and complexifying at a global scale, from traffic and logistics to social networks and the “Internet of Things”. Optimal design of such networks is a difficult task, exploding in complexity with network size and connectivity. Thus, smart heuristics are a key technology — using randomized guessing as a form of provoked error as a core functionality. In ASSISIbf we aim for a radically different approach towards such network optimisation: We use “fuzzy” swarms of honeybees and fish, in association with autonomous robot swarms. These novel bio-hybrid “computational symbioses” efficiently search for optimal, or near-optimal, network configurations. With large populations of animals we hope that future bio-hybrid applications will be able to solve global scale network problems in shorter time than today’s computer algorithms, exploiting the parallelism of organismic swarm computation.


“Engenieering and evolution of bio-hybrid societies” was the call and for a few days participants from all over the globe came to Graz to attend the ASSISIbf Summer School 2017 that took place from the 29th until the 31st of August.

With five lectures and six practicals to choose from, the goal of this summer school was to look beyond bio-inspired systems and develop technologies that can interact in a symbiotic way with the animal world.
The four different tasks, that the attendants were expected to do, were structured in preparation work, that consisted mostly of paper reading, in talks, which the attendants should visit to find solutions and interesting facts for their practicals, the practicals themselves, and last but not least in the analysis and reporting task, in which the participants could present their achievements.


In more than 40 hours of work and with more than 25 dedicated people we can say, that this summer school was productive in many ways, far more than just on a technical level. We were able to establish contacts amongst the attendants and also amongst the teaching staff during needed coffee breaks, and the atmosphere was throughout enjoyable.


To share knowledge and give insight on bio-hybrid and bio-inspired systems went more than well, and we are looking forward to more events like this in the future.

Robots are used in ethology and behavioural experiments to study the modes of interactions and communications between animals. These robots are usually teleoperated by the human experimenters, in order to trigger a response from the studied animals. However, an increasing number of ethological studies uses autonomous robots, capable of social integration with the animals without human intervention. We apply the same idea in the ASSISIbf project to create mixed-societies of animals and robots.

For instance, here is a video of a robot that socially integrates into a group of four zebrafish, in a closed two-patches set-up:


To be accepted by the group of fish, several aspects of robotic design must be considered. First, the fish lure must be biomimetic (i.e. “look” like a real zebrafish). Our lure was created by 3D printing a 3D scan of a real zebrafish. The lure is also covered with a decal to have the same type of color as a zebrafish.


Biomimetic fish lure

Second, the robot must behave like a fish (biomimetic behaviour). Fish have a tendency to be attracted to each other, and to move from one room to the other. They can have complex group dynamics, with fish joining or leaving short-lived sub-groups. The robot must be able to mimic these behaviour to be accepted by the group of fish. The robot must also appear to move like a fish, with biomimetic movement patterns composed of repeated series of high acceleration (tail beat) followed by a relaxation period.

Lastly, fish move very fast in the experimental set-up (in average 9cm/s, but they can reach up to 30 cm/s). As such, the robot hardware and software must also be designed to reach comparable speeds.

With a robot socially integrated in the group of fish, it is possible to use it to influence their behaviour, and control the collective behaviours of the entire biohybrid population of fish and robots. This can be accomplished by using the robot to initiate the collective departures from one room to the other, as shown in this video:


During transitions, we observe that the fish which initiates collective departures is not always the same: the leadership is shared. However, some fish can be the leader more often than others. The leader position is linked to the number of times a fish tries to exit the room. As such, to influence the behaviour of a group of fish, our integrated robot must attempt to exit the room more often than fish. In this video, the robot integrates into the group of the fish and then initiates a transition.


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In September 2016, the project ASSISIbf was showcasing an installation of fish & robots and bees & robots at the ARS ELECTRONICA FESTIVAL. This festival for art, technology and society was held from 8th-12th of September in Linz, Austria.  We had the opportunity to present our project at the Post City Linz, a former postal letter and package sorting facility. Hundreds if not thousands of visitors visited our booth during those 5 days of the exhibition, attracted by online media posts, radio interviews and TV features. ASSISIbf was also represented at a panel session „Chemistry of Intelligence“ on the FIS stage organized by Mahir Yavuz and Pablo Honey, where the project coordinator Thomas Schmickl discussed  with Barbara Ondrisek and Hitoyo Nakano.

The event was organized for months by Manon Briod and Martina Szopek. Their statements at the end just say it all:

Manon: Scientists in an art fair are like fish in Frank’s experiment, first they are afraid and then they follow happily!
Martina: It’s been an exciting experience to present a scientific project at an art fair. Our booth was busy like our bee hives!


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ASSISIbf is leading the effort towards open science. Read more on the openAIRE blog!






Workshop announcement: “Steering living and life-like complex systems” to be held at Arfiticial Life XV in July 2016, in Cancún, Mexico.

New technologies that exploit or emulate the unique properties of living systems have great potential, but the non-linearity and complexity exhibited by these systems render “brute force” approaches to control insufficient. An emerging collection of approaches use “steering”, whereby we continually interact with systems and attempt to move them between attractors.  This may be achieved, for instance, via manipulating the abiotic environment (e.g. in the evolution of biofilms) or by artifacts injecting social information (e.g. in bio-hybrid societies).  Understanding system dynamics and using effective leverage points can thus reduce the effort needed to retain a given desirable state.  Conceptually-related approaches are also being proposed in life-like complex adaptive systems such as regional economies, industrial networks and smart cities.


The workshop aims to bring together researchers interested in understanding and modulating complex biological and societal systems, and researchers of bio-hybrid systems are particularly encouraged to participate: the meeting would welcome perspectives focusing on methodology, ethical issues or conceptual issues in bio-hybrid systems or steering living systems more broadly.


Submissions open until 9 May! See full details of the workshop here:

The workshop is being organised by Alexandra Penn (ERIE/CECAN, Surrey), Rob Mills (ASSISIbf, Lisboa), and Emma Hart (FoCAS, Edinburgh Napier)

ASSISIbf pushing open science

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In the ASSISIbf project we are committed to publish our hardware design as open source. This is motivated by a long successful tradition of publication of open source robot design like the e-puck and the Thymio robots.

By the regular publication of our design we could observe, in the last decade, that the landscape of open source hardware has evolved a lot, mainly because of the improvement of manufacturing possibilities, for instance by the accessibility of 3D printing or laser cutting. Another important factor of change is the increasingly accessibility of electronics, with large open source projects like Arduino. A last factor is the trend toward open science, well represented in Europe by the OpenAIRE initiative (

In this dynamic landscape, some elements are generating conflicts, some others are generating opportunities. Which are these elements, how to avoid or profit from them?
This is the main motivation of two surveys we are running: one among provider of design tools (in progress) and one among the open source hardware communities.

Therefore if you are an open source hardware enthusiast, could you help us by filling in (during 4 minutes, active until March 27, 2016) the survey under:

Thank you for your help. If you give your email address we will inform you about the results publication.

From January 12 to 14, 2016, we organized a winter school on the topic “From bio-inspired to bio-hybrid (robotic) systems”. The school was in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

The goal of the winter school was to present the transition from bio-inspired systems, that are focused on developing technology, to bio-hybrid systems, where technology is in symbiosis with living systems. These bio-hybrid systems can make the best use of the properties of both components: biological and technological. For this, both systems and their interactions need to be modeled, in a more detailed way than for bio-inspired systems. During the school, examples came from hybrid systems involving robots and bees, fish and plants.

The school consisted of four main parts: preparation (article reading), lectures, practicals, and a reporting phase after the winter school for students who would like to submit the result of their practical work for evaluation. A lab visit completed the winter school.

Among the 6 lectures, 5 were given by members of the ASSISIbf project, one was given by members of the Flora Robotica project. Each lecture was mainly associated with a practical, but participants had to follow the same practical during the whole winter school, for a duration of 17 hours. Lectures and practicals were ensured by a total of 13 people.


We had 13 participants registered and attending the winter school, with academic positions spanning from PhD students to professors. The high interest for the topic made the practicals extremely constructive and productive. Among the participants, 4 decided not to write a report on the practical and 9 used this opportunity to get a feedback from the lecturer.

Moreover lectures and practicals were highly appreciated, as illustrated by the evaluation done with the participants:


We look forward to organize another training hoping to get people as interesting and passionate than the ones of this year!