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Learning from Nature - First Self-Organizing Electronic Systems Developed


Professor Peter Hofmann and his team at the Competence Center Electrical and Electronic (EE) Architecture at the Technische Universität Dresden (TU Dresden) have successfully developed the first self-organizing electronic components. These so called autonomous units form the basis for complex technical systems of the future. For this purpose, the scientists have adopted the knowledge of complex systems found in nature.

Organisms are structured according to the modular assembly concept – cells form tissue, tissue forms organs and these in turn form the organism. If individual cells die off, then the organism continues to function. This is because although the cells interact with their neighbouring cells, each individual cell is autonomous in its function. If necessary, it is even possible for other cells to step into the breach and take on a replacement function.

Engineers have been astonished about how effortlessly natural systems seem to adapt to new situations. As an example, a population of ants always finds the shortest way between food site and anthill without possessing a central instructional order. The mechanisms which take place in the human organism are equally fascinating, regarding for example injured skin cells or even entire organs which can regenerate themselves following an accident.

These particular characteristics of natural systems all have one thing in common: They take place by themselves. There is no central control function which issues the cells with a command. In fact, this is the starting point for the researchers at the Competence Center of the TU Dresden. They intend to develop technical systems with self-organizing characteristics and to apply these in practice. One area of application, in which researchers have a particular interest, is the automobile industry.

When nature serves as a model for things technical, this is called “Organic Computing“.
Firstly, the Competence Center EE Architecture of the TU Dresden has analyzed the basic physical and biological principles of self-organization and abstracted them for their application in technical systems. Following this, both the structure and tasks of the units capable of self-organization were described.

In this process, each single element is given autonomy so they are able to communicate with the other system units and – on the basis of this communication process - to co-operate in a way that the objective function is achieved.

This means that the communication process between one particular element and its corresponding control unit is not fixed from the start. On the contrary, the controlling unit is able to react upon stimuli sent by diverse elements. If an electronic control unit (ECU) breaks down, then another control function can integrate a new element and take on its function. To illustrate this, if the control switch for an electric window in an automobile should malfunction, then it is possible for the driver to initiate an autonomous reconfiguration of the system. As a result, approved by the driver, the window control unit receives its information from another switch. In this way it is possible to close the window using that different switch.

Recreating a modern automobile, the Competence Center has developed a test vehicle known as “August 1“ with which the functioning of decentralized electronic systems is currently tested. Professor Peter Hofmann and his research team want to find out how single electronic control units can be organized autonomously, i.e. independently of other systems. The advantage of this would be for instance that each wheel can be controlled and driven individually. As a result, the scientists hope that automotive electronics can be made even more reliable by decentralizing its functioning. Furthermore, decentrally organized systems are very robust and able to adapt to changes caused by the environment. In the field of technology this principle has until now only been applied with computers in a simplified way. USB ports are used to attach various external devices, which the computer recognizes, accepts and integrates.

The Competence Center EE Architecture was founded in 2002 and belongs to the Faculty of Transport Engineering “Friedrich List“ of the TU Dresden.

Prof. Peter E. H. Hofmann | alfa

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