Your new lab partner: the robot scientist

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have built an intelligent mobile robot scientist that can work 24-7, carrying out experiments by itself.

Photo
Mobile robot scientist loading a rack of experimental samples.
Source: University of Liverpool

It has humanoid dimensions and works in a standard laboratory, using instruments much like a human researcher does. However, unlike a human, this 400 kg robot has infinite patience, can think in 10 dimensions, and works for 21.5 hours each day, pausing only to recharge its battery.

This new technology could tackle problems of a scale and complexity that are currently beyond our grasp. For example, autonomous robots could find materials for clean energy production or new drug formulations by searching vast, unexplored chemical spaces.

Robots have been used before in chemistry research, but they are typically hardwired to a specific experiment. This 1.75-meter tall robot is mobile and can roam around the laboratory, performing a wide range of different tasks. It can work with equipment designed for human operation because of its human-like dimensions and physical reach. It uses a combination of laser scanning coupled with touch feedback for positioning, rather than a vision system.

In the first published example, the robot conducts 688 experiments over 8 days, working for 172 out of 192 hours. To do this, it makes 319 moves, completes 6,500 manipulations, and travels a total distance of 2.17 km.

The robot independently carries 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.

University of Liverpool Ph.D. 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 paper "A mobile robotic chemist" is published in Nature.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related articles

Smart algorithm analyses whole brain vasculature

Smart algorithm analyses whole brain vasculature

Scientists have developed a technique for visualising the structures of all the brain's blood vessels including any pathological changes.

Robots on the march to walking like humans

Robots on the march to walking like humans

A psychological theory could kickstart improvements in the way robots are able to walk, thanks to a study at the University of Manchester.

Why do human-like robots elicit uncanny feelings?

Why do human-like robots elicit uncanny feelings?

Many people experience an uneasy feeling in response to robots that are nearly lifelike, and yet somehow not quite “right”.

Machine learning system sorts out materials' databases

Machine learning system sorts out materials' databases

Scientists have used machin -learning to organize the chemical diversity found in the ever-growing databases for the popular metal-organic framework materials.

COVID-19 testing: Robotic platform helps to scale up capacity

COVID-19 testing: Robotic platform helps to scale up capacity

Researchers havee repurposed robotic technology normally used for synthetic biology research to help with testing for COVID-19.

Sarcopenia: Robotic muscles could turn back body clock

Sarcopenia: Robotic muscles could turn back body clock

Loss of strength and muscle wastage is currently an unavoidable part of getting older and has a significant impact on health and quality of life.

COVID-19: Robot takes patients’ vital signs

COVID-19: Robot takes patients’ vital signs

Researchers hope to reduce the risk to healthcare workers posed by Covid-19 by using robots to remotely measure patients’ vital signs.

Exoskeleton research marches forward

Exoskeleton research marches forward

Researchers developed a new measurement method to test whether an exoskeleton and the person wearing it are moving smoothly and in harmony.

Neural network helps doctors explain relapses of heart failure

Neural network helps doctors explain relapses of heart failure

Researchers have developed an algorithm that not only predicts hospital readmissions of heart failure patients, but also tells you why these occur.

Popular articles