PhD opportunity: Online adaptation of robot swarm behaviour using hyper-heuristics

Director of studies: Dr Alan Millard

2nd supervisor: Dr David Walker

3rd supervisor: Dr Sanjay Sharma

Applications are invited for a three-year MPhil/PhD studentship. The studentship will start on 1 October 2019.

Project description

Swarm robotics is an approach to the coordination of large numbers of robots that places emphasis on local sensing and decentralised control to create flexible, scalable, and robust systems. Engineering these systems is non-trivial, as the designer must determine how individual robots should behave such that the desired collective behaviour emerges from their interactions. Automated approaches typically attempt to solve this problem with metaheuristics by optimising neural networks / finite state machines that control robot behaviour. However, these approaches often rely upon offline learning in simulation prior to deployment on real robots, resulting in solutions tailored to a particular robot platform, task, or environment, which cannot cope with uncertainty and fail to generalise to unseen scenarios.

This PhD aims to overcome these issues through the application of hyper-heuristics, which identify heuristics for generating solutions to optimisation problems, by combining machine learning with metaheuristics. They are either selection-based (identifying good heuristics from a predefined pool), or generative-based (creating novel heuristics as the optimisation proceeds), and are generally trained online, making them ideally suited to use in dynamic environments where the problem landscape is constantly changing.

Research will initially be undertaken in our dedicated Swarm Robotics Laboratory, using a swarm of 40 e-puck robots. This work will then be extended to small autonomous vessels in our COAST Laboratory, to assess the swarm’s ability to perform inspection/maintenance tasks on a scale model of an offshore wind farm, while simultaneously adapting to changing wave conditions representative of a real marine environment.


Applicants should have (at least) a first or upper second class honours degree in an appropriate subject and preferably a relevant MSc or MRes qualification.


The studentship is supported for 3 years and includes full Home/EU tuition fees plus a stipend of £15,009 per annum.

Applicants normally required to cover overseas fees will have to cover the difference between the Home/EU and the overseas tuition fee rates (approximately £12,950 per annum).

How to apply

If you wish to discuss this project further informally, please contact Dr Alan Millard. However, applications must be made in accordance with the details shown below.

General information about applying for a research degree at the University of Plymouth.

You can apply via the online application form and selecting ‘Apply’.

Please mark it FAO Carole Watson, clearly stating that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics.  Please attach a covering letter detailing your suitability for the studentship, a CV, Research statement, and 2 academic references.

For more information on the admissions process contact Carole Watson.

The closing date for applications is 12 noon on 31 May 2019. Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview mid June. We regret that we may not be able to respond to all applications. Applicants who have not received an offer of a place by 30 June 2019 should consider their application has been unsuccessful on this occasion.