Dr Jordan H Boyle

Profile

Initially, my interest in robotics led me to take a bachelors degree in electrical engineering at the University of Cape Town, but I became increasingly fascinated with biological systems after realising the extent to which even simple animals outperform robots in terms of robustness and flexibility. I therefore went on to do an MSc in the same department, but on a topic closer to computational neuroscience. During this two year research project I explored the field of neural modelling, and wrote a thesis on synaptic plasticity in the Aplysia californica gill-syphon withdrawal reflex. I went on to do a  PhD entitled "C. elegans locomotion: an integrated approach" in the School of Computing at Leeds, as part of a highly cross-disciplinary project involving biology, mathematics, computer science and engineering. The goal of my project was to use an engineering approach to uncover the neuromechanical mechanism underlying C. elegans locomotion.

After finishing my PhD I decided to pursue the idea of using a virtual C. elegans nervous system as an adaptive locomotion controller for a serpentine robot for locomotion in difficult terrain. I did so with the support of an EPSRC PhD+ Fellowship, and was successful in developing a robot proved to be extremely adept at adapting to environmental constraints, achieving better performance than its competitors with minimal computational recourses. This work received significant media attention both nationally and internationally, with highlights including articles on the New Scientist website and in the Financial Times weekend magazine, an appearance on The Gadget Show and an interview on BBC Radio Leeds.

I next sought to apply my interdisciplinary background and expertise in biological and bio-inspired locomotion in a different domain, which I did as a Postdoc on CoDIR: a large EU-funded project involving the Universities of Leeds and Dundee that aimed to develop a miniature mobile robot for use in hydro-colonoscopy. During my first year on the project I developed several novel locomotion mechanisms for the robot, one of which was ultimately chosen for use in the final integrated system which is still under development. Towards the end of my first year on the project I secured my current Lectureship position and since then my involvement on CoDIR has continued in a supervisory capacity.

Responsibilities

  • Mechatronics Programme Manager
  • Public Relations Liaison: EPSRC National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems

Research interests

Overview

My research lies on the interface of Engineering and Biology, and I am particularly interested in using biological inspiration (mainly from invertebrates) to develop simple but robust robotic systems capable of operating reliably and independently in complex, unpredictable environments. My work in this area is underpinned by expertise in computational modelling of complex biological systems, and advanced additive manufacturing techniques. I hope to apply invertebrate-inspired locomotion and behavioural strategies to the challenge of long-term robot autonomy and self-sufficiency across a range of application areas.

Motivation

To design bio-inspired robots one must first achieve a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms and find a way to capture their essence in a system based on fundamentally different building blocks. The phenomenal complexity of biological systems makes it extremely challenging to elucidate the mechanisms involved, while our technological building blocks seem crude and clumsy compared to the exquisite elegance of proteins and DNA. In light of these challenges, I believe we are best served by focussing on relatively simple animals that nonetheless display rich behaviour. Invertebrates are as varied as they are successful. While some are too simple and sessile to serve as useful inspiration, others display rich repertoires of goal-directed behaviour underpinned by robust locomotion and efficient sensory systems. Indeed, invertebrates possess a vast array of capabilities that would be desirable in a robotics context. But why are invertebrates so successful? After all, mammals can do everything they can and more. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that invertebrates are extremely “cheap”. The combination of a short life-cycle, large brood size and minimal parental investment means that invertebrates can afford to have a high attrition rate. In order to be truly successful, invertebrate-inspired robots should reflect this as much as possible. Indeed, one of the major barriers to the wider uptake of mobile autonomous robots is cost. If robots could be made cheap enough to be viewed as semi-disposable, they would be deployed more widely, more frequently and in greater numbers. For this reason, my research emphasises the importance of low-cost solutions. This may require abstraction and simplification of the biological mechanism at the expense of realism in some cases, but it is more important to be true to the “philosophy” of invertebrate biology than to the details of the implementation.

Qualifications

  • BSc (hons) in Electrical Engineering
  • MSc in Electrical Engineering
  • PhD in Computational Neuroscience

Student education

I teach primarily on the Product Design programme, where I'm responsible for everything to do with electronics, including microcontrollers. My intention is to equip these students with the necessary skills to design and protoype simple but useful electronic systems of the sort one might find in modern consumer products. As such, my teaching is very hands-on, with most classes consisting of a one hour lecture immediately followed by a 1 hour practical during which students practice what they just learned. This approach has proven highly successful so far, with many of my past students choosing to include working electronic circuits in their Level 3 and 4 projects. I am also a personal tutor for 1st and 2nd year Mechatronics students, and am involved in supervising 3rd year, 4th year and MSc projects.

Research groups and institutes

  • Institute of Design, Robotics and Optimisation
  • Robotics at Leeds
  • Surgical Technologies Research Group

Publications:

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