Engineers at NUI Galway and the University of Ulster are developing bio-inspired integrated circuit technology which mimics the neuron structure and operation of the brain and will help robots to think for themselves in search-and-rescue operations and space exploration.
One key goal of the research is the application of the electronic neural device, called a hardware spiking neural network, to the control of autonomous robots which can operate independently in remote, unsupervised environments.
“Electronic neurons, implemented using silicon integrated circuit technology, cannot exactly replicate the complexity of neurons found in the human brain, or the massive number of connections between neurons,” Dr Fearghal Morgan, director of the Bio-Inspired Electronics and Reconfigurable Computing (BIRC) research group at NUI Galway, explained.
“However, inspired by the operation and structure of the brain, we have successfully developed a hardware spiking neural network and have used this device for robotics control,” he said.
Morgan said the electronic device interprets the state of the robot’s environment through signals received from sensing devices, such as cameras and ultrasonic sensors, which act as the eyes and ears of the robot.
The neural network then modifies the behaviour of the robot accordingly, by sending signals to the robot’s limbs to enable activity such as walking, grasping and obstacle avoidance.
Technology that mimics evolution in nature
“Our research is focused on mimicking evolution in nature,” Morgan continued. “The latest hardware neural network currently in development will contain thousands of small electronic neuron-like devices which interoperate concurrently, in a similar way to neurons in the biological brain.
“The device can be trained to perform a particular function, and can be retrained many times for various applications.”
He said the training process resembles the training of the brain, by making, strengthening and weakening the links between neurons and defining the conditions which cause a neuron to fire, sending signals to all of the attached neurons.
“As with the brain, the collection of interconnected neurons makes decisions on incoming data to cause an action in the controlled system.”
“Until now, the robotics arena has focused on electronic controllers which incorporate one or more microprocessors, which typically execute instructions in sequence and, while performing tasks quickly, are limited by the instruction processing speed. Power is also a consideration.
"While the human brain, on average, only requires 10 watts of power, a typical PC requires 300 watts. We believe that a small embedded hardware neural network device has the potential to perform effective robotics control, at low power, while also incorporating fault detection and self-repair behaviour.
“Our aim is to develop a robust, intelligent hardware neural network robotics controller which can autonomously maintain robot behaviour, even when its environment changes or a fault occurs within the robotics system.”
Dr Jim Harkin, from the School of Computing and Intelligent Systems, University of Ulster (Magee Campus), added that the constant miniaturisation of silicon technology to increase performance introduces inherent reliability issues which must be overcome.
“Ultimately, the hardware neural network or robot ‘brain’ will be able to detect and overcome electronic faults that occur within itself, and continue to function effectively without human intervention.”
The research project is supported by Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET), the International Centre for Graduate Education in Micro- and Nano-Engineering (ICGEE), the Xilinx University Programme, the University of Ulster’s Vice Chancellor’s Research Scholarship, and the SFI National Access Programme.