subCULTron, an EU FET-PROACTIVE project (no. 640967), has developed a swarm of over 120 Robots, that is able to autonomously operate in lagoon areas for environmental monitoring. Individual robots can operate up to several months autonomously, due to their ability to use mud as an energy source. The test area for the subCULTron robotic swarm system was the lagoon of Venice.


The goal of subCULTron was to develop a novel type of tool to observe large lagoon areas in a highly parallel, spatially distributed manner. In order to achieve such a system, we used a large number (100+) of relatively small and cheap robots. This “swarm approach” is in stark contrast to the widespread paradigm of the usage of single large (and therefore expensive) robotic entities. This approach not only allows to take dozens of measurements at the same time from different places, but it also enables autonomy and swarm intelligent decentralization of the robot swarm. Due to this self-organized architecture of the robots, the robotic system can react to the measurements such as repositioning parts of the swarm towards more interesting locations or changing the sample rate in different areas.


The Three Robot Types

The subCULTron robot swarm system consist of 3 different types of robots: aPads, aFish and aMussels

The aPad is a robotic unit operating at the water surface. It acts as a link between the underwater robot swarm and the above-water world, e.g. human operators at shore. It can also be used to transport robots from one place to another. The aPad is equipped with strong motors to allow fast reallocation, with four docking units to carry and recharge up to four aMussels in parallel, and with adequate communication capabilities to function as an interface to the underwater robot swarm. The subCULTron robotic system contained five aPads in total.



Another member of the subCULTron swarm is the aFish, which is a mobile robot that can be used to scout new areas or to carry data between different groups of robots if classical communication strategies are infeasible. The subCULTron robotic system contained 20 aFish in total.



The third member of the subCULTron swarm is the aMussel. These are a mostly immobile robot, able only to surface or to submerge to the seabed. Such robots can communicate via green light or electric fields in short range between neighbouring aMussels. This ability to communicate locally is very important for the use of bioinspired algorithms [1,2] that enable decentralized, self-organized computation and decision. Each aMussel is equipped with a large variety of sensors for various purposes such as cameras, particle counters, turbidity sensors, soil microbial activity sensory systems etc. The subCULTron robotic system contained of 120 aMussel robots in total. 



The mfcMussel

One big breakthrough that was achieved in subCULTron was the unprecedented proof of concept that an autonomous Robot could run autonomously only on microbial fuel cells (MFCs). Although this technology has been tested before in laboratories, subCULTron demonstrated that such technologies can be used in autonomous robotics also in a saltwater substrate, and - even more challenging - in the field, which was the fully occupied venice lagoon, with all its people and boats inhabiting it. This breakthrough opens the doors for new types of technologies such as robot to lifeform symbioses (robocoenosis).


Economic and Societal Impact

In addition to the academic success of the project subCULTron, it also succeeded in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation. The robotic platform “aPad” led to a spin off company that now not only is used in other EU projects, but is also sold internationally. Cybertronica research,  an SME based in Germany, developed electronic parts of the aMussel and aFish.


The FET project subCULTron was successfully completed in November 2019.


Project Leader: Thomas Schmickl
Project Leader: Thomas Schmickl
Project Management: Gerald Radspieler, Ronald Thenius
Team: Ronald Thenius, Thomas Schmickl, Gerald Radspieler, Joshua Cherian Varughese, Daniel E. Moser, Hannes Hornischer
Duration: April 2015 to October 2019
Granted By: EU - 640967