Liverpool researchers build mobile robot scientist

A team at Liverpool University has built an intelligent mobile robot scientist able to roam around a laboratory and carry out experiments by itself.

mobile robot scientist
Socially distant scientist: the robot is able to operate equipment designed for humans. Image: Liverpool University

The system –which is based on a Kuka collaborative robot – is able to move autonomously around the laboratory making its own decisions about which chemistry experiments to perform next.

According to a paper in the journal Nature the technology has already discovered a new catalyst and it’s thought that it could be applied to complex problems such as the discovery of new materials for clean energy production or new drug formulations.

Able to roam freely around the lab and work with equipment designed for human operation the robot uses a combination of laser scanning coupled with touch feedback for positioning, rather than a vision system.

In the first published example, the robot conducted 688 experiments over eight days, working for 172 out of 192 hours. To do this, it made 319 moves, completed 6,500 manipulations, and travelled a total distance of 2.17km.

The robot independently carried out all tasks in the experiment such as weighing out solids, dispensing liquids, removing air from the vessel, running the catalytic reaction, and quantifying the reaction products.

The robot’s brain uses a search algorithm to navigate a 10-dimensional space of more than 98 million candidate experiments, deciding the best experiment to do next based on the outcomes of the previous ones. By doing this, it autonomously discovered a catalyst that is six times more active, with no additional guidance from the research team.

Liverpool University PhD student Dr Benjamin Burger, who built and programmed the robot, said: “The biggest challenge was to make the system robust. To work autonomously over multiple days, making thousands of delicate manipulations, the failure rate for each task needs to be very low. But once this is done, the robot makes far fewer mistakes than a human operator.”

Professor Andrew Cooper from the University’s Department of Chemistry and Materials Innovation Factory in Liverpool, who led the project added: “Our strategy here was to automate the researcher, rather than the instruments. This creates a level of flexibility that will change both the way we work and the problems we can tackle. This is not just another machine in the lab: it’s a new superpowered team member, and it frees up time for the human researchers to think creatively.”

The work was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Leverhulme Trust.