RoboBees get smart in pollen pursuit

Jun 10, 2013 by Angela Herring
While their colleagues at Harvard continue optimizing the body design and group behavior, professor Joseph Ayers, center, post doctoral researcher Anthony Westphal, left, and doctoral candidate Dan Blustein, right, are testing their neuronal-based control system on a robotic helicopter. Credit: Brooks Canaday

(Phys.org) —When a scout honeybee returns to the hive, she performs a "waggle dance," looping and shaking her rear end in particular patterns to direct her comrades toward the jackpot of nectar and pollen she's found. Her movements communicate the direction and distance of the nectar source, providing a vector along which the other bees can now travel. As they fly through the air, the flow of optical stimuli across their peripheral vision tells the bees how far they've traveled and when to turn.

The whole operation is the nuanced output of the bees' , the product of eons of evolutionary optimization. Now that the is in steep, inexplicable decline, the loss of its specialized practices threatens crop viability across the globe.

But if disappear completely, a team of scientists at Northeastern, Harvard University, and CentEye, Inc. has a plan. Using Harvard's groundbreaking pop-up manufacturing technique, the team can rapidly generate inexpensive swarms of miniature flying robots, which could some day pollinate an entire field of crops.

"But, a swarm of micro-robots could be used for a lot of different things," said Dan Blustein, a graduate student at Northeastern's Marine Science Center. They could be used for traffic and weather monitoring or to safely investigate a leak at a radiation plant, for instance.

"A lot of the technology of this stuff, if you can shrink it down that small, get the power requirements that low," said post-doctoral researcher Anthony Westphal, "it really does open up a lot of windows in terms of what can be useful."

Blustein and Westphal are members of professor Joseph Ayer's research lab, which investigates the neural networks of various and replicates them in . The lab first began investigating the neural networks underlying behavior in lobsters and lamprey and to date has produced several generations of RoboLobsters and RoboLamprey that sense and respond to their environment using an electronic neural networks of neurons and synapses that mimics the animal model's brain. These underwater systems are being developed for underwater mine countermeasures.

"There are many similarities between bees and lobsters," said Blustein. While the other groups on the RoboBee team are working to master the body design and its sensory equipment, the bees wouldn't get very far without an instinctive method for responding to the environment. Optical flow data collected by visual sensors on the bee's head needs to be translated into adaptive movement in one direction or another.

"Most artificial intelligence-based robots are controlled algorithmically," said Ayers, the principle investigator on the National Science Foundation-supported research. This means the designer must predict and generate computer programs for every possible contingency of the environment in which the robot operates, he explained. Animal behavior, in contrast, is controlled by neuronal and synaptic networks that the team mimics in what they call "biological intelligence."

"We are adapting controllers derived from animal nervous systems to the control of robotics," said Ayers. The unique thing with the honeybees is it's the first time anyone has attempted neuronal-based bio-mimicry with a flying platform. Moving in three dimensions introduces a host of new complications, which the team is now addressing.

Colleagues at Harvard have introduced a group behavior component that will allow the RoboBees to not only to organize pollination missions, but to pass along what they've learned in some robotic version of the waggle dance.

Explore further: Index ranks Japan Asia's most efficient innovator (Update)

Related Stories

Honeybees waggle found to be disturbed by gravity

Apr 19, 2012

(Phys.org) -- One of the really cool things about science is how the mundane can suddenly seem not just interesting, but truly fascinating. One great example of this is the bee hive, specifically the honeybee ...

Bees get a buzz from caffeine

Mar 07, 2013

Scientists have today shown that caffeine improves a honeybee's memory and could help the plant recruit more bees to spread its pollen.

Caffeine enhances bee memory

May 13, 2013

(Phys.org) —Caffeine is the naturally occurring drug most widely used by humans. In nature, though, it is reported to act as a bitter and toxic deterrent to herbivores, preventing leaves and seeds from ...

Recommended for you

Will tomorrow's robots move like snakes?

41 minutes ago

Over the last few years, researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) have developed biologically inspired robots designed to fly like falcons, perch like pigeons, and swim ...

Future of energy storage

1 hour ago

MIT professor Fikile Brushett is in the process of taking the power generated by wind and solar, chemically lashing it to molecules derived from flora and fauna, and storing it in liquids until it's needed ...

Protecting infrastructure with smarter CPS

1 hour ago

Security of IT networks is continually being improved to protect against malicious hackers. Yet when IT networks interface with infrastructures such as water and electric systems to provide monitoring and control capabilities, ...

Reducing traffic congestion, remotely

1 hour ago

At the Intelligent Transportation Systems World Congress last week, MIT researchers received one of the best-paper awards for a new system, dubbed RoadRunner, that uses GPS-style turn-by-turn directions to ...

How to print your own cell phone microscope for pennies

1 hour ago

At one o'clock in the morning, layers of warm plastic are deposited on the platform of the 3D printer that sits on scientist Rebecca Erikson's desk. A small plastic housing, designed to fit over the end of ...

User comments : 0