The Bristol Robotics Lab (BRL) is building a system for the artificial evolution of robots for extreme environments.

The four-year Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE) project with the University of York, Edinburgh Napier and the Free University of Amsterdam will use a robot to 3D print and assemble other robots and train them in a ‘nursery’ before testing them in a mock nuclear plant. The whole process is fully automatic, allowing the robots to build themselves.

“We’ve been trying to win support for this project for five years or so, and only now succeeded. This is a project that we’ve been thinking, and writing about, for a long time – so to have the opportunity to try out our ideas for real is wonderful,” said Alan Winfield, professor of robot ethics at the University of the West of England who is part of the project.

The designs of the fittest robots, equivalent to the genomes in genetics, will be combined to create the next generation of ‘child’ robots. Over successive generations, the project will evolve new robot designs in a process that mirrors the way farmers have artificially selected new varieties of plants and animals for thousands of years.

Doing this, in reality, is slow and resource hungry, so the project is also running a parallel process of simulated evolution in a virtual environment, where the real world environment is used to calibrate the virtual world. A hybrid real-virtual process under the control of ecosystem manager software will allow real and virtual robots to combine, and the resulting child robots to be printed and tested in either the virtual or real environments.

BRL is working on two of the five work packages, developing of a purpose designed 3D printing system – a ‘birth clinic’ – to print small mobile robots (above).

This birth clinic will need to pick and place a number of pre-designed and fabricated electronics, sensing and actuation modules into the printing work area which will be overprinted with hot plastic to form the complete robot.

BRL will also be integrating all the components of the system into a demonstrator, including the real world birth clinic, nursery, and mock nuclear environment with the virtual environment and the ecosystem manager and then undertaking the evaluation and analysis.

York will be developing the evolution algorithms and virtual environment (York), while Napier will deliver the ecosystem manager. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and research lab EPFL in Zurich are also partners in the project.

The labs have a history of working on technology long before it is available commercially. It started working on algorithms for how swarms of autonomous robots interact ten years ago which is now a major area of industrial research for both drones and driverless cars.

BRL is Europe’s largest robotics lab. Details of the work can be found at and you can sign up for the West of England Robotics Network at