Sabine Hauert

You don’t want to mess with Sabine Hauert – upset her and this scientist could well unleash a swarm of robots on you.

This lecturer works at the world-renowned Bristol Robotics Laboratory, UK.

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“You’d be amazed at how exciting it is to see a robot dog score a goal.”

Ever since taking part in the RoboCup – the robot equivalent of the World Cup – Sabine Hauert has remained in the world of robotics.

“We would cheer our little robots and cry and hug when they won a match. I thought it was amazing that we could make robots work together, and hoped that they could one day help us in real-world applications.”

But she’s not always been working with robots, though maths and science have always been a part of her life.

Born in Pennsylvania, US, in the early 1980s, Sabine moved to Switzerland when she was 10. Solving maths problems was something she loved and she’s always be taking on challenges in booklets during vacation. But at the age of 12 she had to decide where she was more interested in studying science or languages at school.

“Since I chose science, I was able to learn computer science and a language called “Basic”. I used to write love letters with pixelated hearts in Basic to my then boyfriend - not sure how romantic that was!”

RoboCup was instrumental in sparking Sabine's interest in robots. Credit: Alamy


Working in cafes and restaurants ever since she was 15, that money allowed her to buy scooters and motorcycles, before going to university where she did an exchange year at the Carnegie Mellon University during her Masters in Computer Science, where she joined the RoboCup team.

Those little robotic dogs triggered something and Sabine continues working with robots until this day, although she’s now in the world of swarm engineering.

“I take inspiration from swarming in nature, you might see it in birds flocking, or ants creating trails to your picnic table, to engineer a robot swarm that can achieve complex tasks.”

Sabine and her team have a vision for a future where swarms of autonomous robots carry out all sorts of useful tasks – large drones could create telecommunications networks after natural disasters or tend to crops on large farms, while tiny nano-robots could be injected into the body to treat cancer or carry out surgery.

She now has a swarm of 1,000 small robots in her lab which allow real-world tests of how these swarms might organize themselves."

Starlings, a species of bird which has inspire Sabine. Credit: Alamy


“I loved my PhD work designing swarms of flying robots. Although it was impressive then to be able to fly 10 fully autonomous robots outdoors, it was also a relatively small number in my mind. I wanted to work on much larger swarms, and for them to have a profound purpose.

Nanobots. Credit: Alamy

“That got me excited by the idea of using swarms of nanoparticles to treat cancer. I spent the last year of my PhD reading about cancer and nanoparticles (which are way too small to be seen with a normal microscope), and applying for all sorts of fellowships, most of which were rejected on the basis that I hadn’t studied chemistry, biology, or medicine.”

Not to be put off by those rejections, Sabine received a Human Frontier Science Program Cross-Disciplinary Postdoctoral Fellowship to design swarming nanoparticles with Sangeeta Bhatia at the Koch Institute for Integrated Cancer Research at MIT in Massachusetts, US.

“Being cross-disciplinary is wonderful, because you can explore new fields, learn new scientific ‘languages’, and ultimately bring new perspectives and insight to different areas. It’s also a bit of a hurdle since much of our training, funding, and reward structure is based on scientific silos [e.g. funding is traditionally given to specific areas rather than spread across more than one discipline].”

Since then she’s put together a team in her lab which make her proud with the work they do. They come from all sorts of backgrounds including biomedical sciences, physics, aerospace, computer science, electrical engineering, robotics.

“Every week we meet for swarm lunch and discuss latest results spanning nanomedicine, synthetic biology, and swarm robotics. It’s so much fun.”

She’s also president and co-founder of Robohub, a non-profit communication platform which aims to connect the robotics community and the public and avoid some of the misinformation that can surround the industry.

“This is really important to avoid the hype surrounding robotics and artificial intelligence, and to make sure we develop the technology in the best way to benefit society. We’re now seen as a top blog in robotics, with 1.5M page views every year.”

Swarm robots. Credit: Wiki, Harvard University

The future

Sabine’s lab is now four years old. Her team has built a 1,000-strong robot swarm, a teraflop [a super-intelligent swarm with more than 1 teraflop of computing power - that's about six times more powerful than a high-end gaming PC] swarm with high computational power and a wetlab for synthetic biology experiments.

“Now comes the fun part where we hopefully see these swarms in action doing great science, and leading to useful real-world applications. I’m also starting a swarm of my own, with a baby on the way in just a couple weeks.”

But as a technology, she see’s robots taking on specific tasks rather than being integrated into society, hoping that by the year 2100 they’re common place “in the same way that dishwashers are today”.