Applications of agent technology
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Southampton
Unit of AssessmentComputer Science and Informatics
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Mathematical Sciences: Applied Mathematics
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing, Information Systems
Summary of the impact
Agent-based computing is a new paradigm for building complex
socio-technical systems composed of many interacting intelligent and
autonomous components. New co-ordination and negotiation algorithms
developed at the University of Southampton, have provided new methods for
managing such interactions in a flexible manner. This study focuses on
their applications in two new start-up companies (Aerogility and Aroxo) in
the defence, aerospace and civil contingency sectors (e.g. BAE Systems,
Ministry of Defence and Hampshire County Council) in helping the GB
Sailing Team to success at the 2012 Olympics, and in monitoring the
environment for effects of climate change.
Southampton's Agents, Interaction and Complexity Group (AICG) undertakes
world-leading research into the science and engineering of complex
socio-technical and socio-economic systems, that underpin the most
pressing challenges facing society today. Problems as diverse as
engineering resilient and sustainable smart infrastructure, refactoring
healthcare systems to cope with demographic change, or anticipating and
mitigating the impacts of climate change, all involve building and
analysing complex systems comprising many interacting agents, including
people, hardware robots and autonomous software agents. This has been the
focus of Professors of Computer Science Nick Jennings (1999-) and Alex
Rogers (2003-) and AICG Lecturers Sarvapali Ramchurn (2004-) Enrico
Gerding (2005-) and Maria Polukarov (2007-). Fundamental underpinning
research took place through a number of EPSRC projects: ALADDIN (2005-11,
grant 1), ARGUS (2003-08, grant 2) Autonomic Computing (2008-2009, grant
3) Intelligent Systems for Disaster Management (ISDM) (2011-12, grant 4)
Market-Based Control (MBC) (2005-10, grant 5) and ORCHID (2011-15, grant
6). Although several of these grants were collaborative in nature, most of
the algorithms discussed in the impact section were developed solely by
Southampton researchers (where this is not the case, Southampton
researchers were joint inventors).
This body of work seeks to enable a number of autonomous components
(agents) to flexibly interact with one another in complex environments, in
order to achieve their individual and collective goals. As the agents are
autonomous, the de facto mode of interaction is some form of
negotiation and since there are interdependencies between the agents,
their actions need to be coordinated if they are to be effective. Over the
past decade, the Group has developed a suite of such approaches and has
looked at both the theoretical properties of such interactions and how
algorithms can be developed to facilitate computationally effective
In terms of specific approaches, the key coordination technique is based
on the max-sum algorithm: an efficient message-passing algorithm that
supports decentralised decision making and control, developed on the ARGUS
and ALADDIN projects [3.1]. An important complementary line of research,
used Gaussian processes to make computationally efficient predictions
about future events that involve significant degrees of uncertainty [3.2].
An earlier strand of work from ARGUS, led by Jennings, in collaboration
with Kirk Martinez, Reader in Electronics and Computer Science (1997-)
combined decision theoretic utility functions with information theory
(specifically Kullback-Leibler divergence) to coordinate the sampling and
information exchange in sensor networks [3.3]. The Group has also been
very active in the area of coalition formation (mainly through ORCHID,
ALADDIN and MBC) developing new algorithms for forming teams of agents and
analysing the computational complexity of various stability concepts
For automated negotiation work, the MBC project explored issues
associated with using auctions and markets to undertake resource
allocation in rapidly changing and highly uncertain domains. AICG
researchers determined the optimal strategy that a bidding agent should
use to maximise its return in a setting in which there are a series of
auctions occurring simultaneously [3.5]. For encounters in which the
agents need to interact with one another directly (in a bilateral
encounter) the Group devised a number of heuristic negotiation strategies
that built upon Jennings's seminal work in this area [3.6].
References to the research
(best three are starred)
Grant 1 ALADDIN: PI Jennings; CoIs: Rogers, Ramchurn, Polukarov;
"Autonomous Learning Agents for Decentralised Data and Information
Systems"; BAE SYSTEMS/EPSRC (EP/C548051/1); 2005-2011; £5.4m.
Grant 2 ARGUS: PI Jennings; "Decentralised Data Fusion";
EPSRC/MoD/DTI (GR/S20727/01); 2003-2008; £1m.
Grant 3 Autonomic: PI Jennings; CoI: Rogers; "Autonomic Supply
Chains in Computational Economies"; EPSRC (EP/F067143/1); 2008-2009;
Grant 4 MBC: PI Jennings; CoI: Gerding; "Market-Based Control";
EPSRC (GR/T10664/01); 2005-2010; £690k.
Grant 5 ISDM: PI Ramchurn; "Intelligent Systems for Disaster
Management"; EPSRC Knowledge Transfer Scheme (EP/H500243/1); 2010-2011.
Grant 6 ORCHID: PI Jennings; CoIs: Rogers, Ramchurn; "Human-Agent
Collectives"; EPSRC Programme Grant (EP/I011587/1); 2011-2016; £5.5m.
Details of the impact
New coordination and negotiation algorithms developed by the AICG,
directly led to the creation of two independent start-ups (Aerogility and
Aroxo), contributed to the economic growth of established businesses (e.g.
BAE) informed key changes in public policy and services (e.g. Fawley) and
served as a key technology for British Antarctic Survey environmental
Aerogility's main product is an agent-based business decision-support
system, targeted at global aerospace and defence organisations. This was
developed by Jennings, who, in his capacity as Chief Scientist, worked
with Aerogility's product development team from the beginning of the
company (established under the name Lostwax in 1999) to refine
market-based negotiation algorithms developed through MBC and ALADDIN, so
they could efficiently and effectively optimise aircraft scheduling and
maintenance activities. This core intellectual property has directly led
to Aerogility's growth. The company expanded its business to the United
States in 2008 and currently employs 20 people. Since the beginning of the
REF impact period, the system has been licenced by: i) Sikorsky Aerospace
Services for the S-92 fleet (2009); ii) Lockheed Martin for the F-22
Raptor and F-35 fleets (2012); and iii) Boeing for the TLCS UK Chinook
fleet (2012) with additional ongoing economic benefits from Aerogility's
selection by BAE Systems for its Tornado, Harrier, Typhoon, Nimrod and
Hawk fleets since 2006 [5.1]. Aerogility has twice received a BAE System's
Chairman's Award. In 2007, it received a Bronze level for providing
powerful decision-support for the UK Fleet Planners managing ATTAC, the
strategic availability contract for the UK Tornado fleet valued in the
region of £1.5 billion [5.8] and in 2008, a Silver level.
In 2009, Aroxo, an internet sales channel using heuristic negotiation
algorithms developed as part of MBC and ALADDIN, was launched. Jennings
worked with Aroxo's development teams to refine and scale the fundamental
algorithms to enable online retailers to dynamically set prices for
products in response to customer online bids. At its peak in 2011, the
Aroxo marketplace controlled stock worth £10 million and dealt with up to
20,000 interactions per day [5.2; 5.9].
AICG research has led to improved performance in existing businesses. BAE
Systems, in particular, has directly invested over £4 million (not
including contributions in kind) in AICG research since 2005. In 2009,
this enabled Jennings and Rogers to work with BAE staff to deploy the
max-sum coordination algorithm to the problems of Force Threat Evaluation
and Weapon Assignment (within Insyte's Combat Management System CMS-1)
and, in 2010, for the collaborative control of multiple unmanned aerial
vehicles and sensors [5.3, 5.10]. In both cases, the algorithms improved
the performance of military platforms and sensors by enabling coordination
to maximise operational effect. This work produced two patents and
differentiating technologies that, since 2008, helped BAE secure £2
million in Ministry of Defence funding. This includes: i) BAE's selection
to lead the Autonomous Systems Underpinning Research programme
(approximate value £1 million); ii) a contract to demonstrate the benefit
of agent-based computing in the context of the Network-Enabled Air Defence
Surveillance programme (value £500k); and iii) £170k in Centre for Defence
Enterprise funding to demonstrate the application of agent-based computing
methods in defence (ISTAR) and security (intelligence processing) problems
[5.10]. BAE Systems has also invested a significant amount of its Central
Technology Programme research budget (worth over £1 million in 2012-13) on
projects related to autonomy and agent-based computing that have been
informed by Southampton's work and their ongoing relationship with
Further economic benefits were created through the university-owned
business development agency ECS Partners Limited. Since 2008, they have
secured commercial contracts involving the application of AICG agent tools
and techniques worth £85k for: the Defence Science and Technology
Laboratory, with respect to military logistics and for BAE Systems Insyte
with respect to supply chain logistics; dismounted infantry patrols and
autonomous power management [5.4].
The performance of other companies has been improved through AICG
provision of training courses drawing upon this body of research. For
example, across 2009/10, AICG staff ran three five-day intensive schools
for 45 engineers from Roke Manor Research, BAE Systems, MBDA, Rolls-Royce
and SELEX Galileo on agent-based techniques for defence applications
In terms of societal impact, prediction algorithms developed by Rogers as
part of ALADDIN, were deployed in a BAE prototype tool used to help the UK
Sailing Team in the 2012 Olympics. The tool enabled improved accuracy of
weather pattern forecasting in Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour, with a
view to providing the UK team with a competitive advantage [5.5, 5.10].
In 2010/11, ORCHID-derived coalition formation algorithms were
incorporated into a large-scale agent-based disaster simulation platform
that has impacted on public policy and services in Hampshire. Overseen by
Ramchurn, Hampshire County Council's Emergency Planning Unit used the
simulation to identify potential choke points in road networks and more
accurately estimate civilian evacuation times for high-risk areas. For
example, the Southampton-enabled simulation showed that the one hour
estimated to evacuate Fawley Village needed to be revised upwards to three
hours. As a direct result, Hampshire has enacted new congestion control
strategies and changed its official operating procedures [5.11].
British Antarctic Survey scientists have benefited from work by Jennings
and Martinez to coordinate sampling and information exchange in sensor
networks, through the deployment of algorithms since 2012. Tools developed
at Southampton were used to record temperature, pressure and orientation
changes in the Briksdalsbreen glacier, Norway, providing new insights into
the impact of climate change [5.6]. The Briksdalsbreen technology has
received considerable media attention from, among others, BBC News at Ten
[5.7] leading to increased public knowledge and awareness of climate
change. Further public impact has been felt through use of the
Briksdalsbreen findings in presentations on global warming by the Al Gore
Climate Project in 2008 [5.12].
Sources to corroborate the impact
[5.1] Aerogility. http://www.aerogility.com/.
[5.2] Aroxo. http://www.aroxo.com; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8185896.stm.
[5.3] ALADDIN Final Report. http://www.aladdinproject.org/.
[5.4] ECS Partners Ltd.
[5.6] Glacsweb. http://glacsweb.org/pubs.html.
This lists the earth science papers based on the data streams made
possible by the project.
[5.7] BBC News at ten (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CY8AagMh_1M).
BBC News on trials in Norway (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8297645.stm
BBC world service, BBC tech website, ACM news, UNICEF
website, CBC Canada live news discussion, 26000 Google hits on "Glacsweb"
mainly due to online discussion. Nature 2020 Computing (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v440/n7083/full/440402a.html)
[5.8] Executive Director, Aerogility Inc., London.
[5.9] Co-Founder, Aroxo UK Ltd., London.
[5.10] Research Manager, BAE Systems, Camberley.
[5.11] Head of Emergency Planning and Business Continuity, Hampshire
County Council, Winchester.
[5.12] Glaciologist, British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge.