Robo-Bee To Get Brain for Autonomous Flight

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Autonomous robots can do reconnaissance

for the military, fly in complex

patterns and even explore

other planets. But they aren't great at complex, open-ended

problems. Military surveillance drones or NASA's Curiosity rover are both

doing largely pre-programmed tasks.

Animals — even insects — are a lot smarter than robots, so scientists are constantly looking at ways of mimicking insect behaviors in robots. At the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex in the U.K., researchers are building a software model of a bee's brain.

Brain in a Dish Flies Plane

Called the "Green Brain," the software model will focus on how a bee sees and smells. With that, a robotic bee could be built that actually behaves like a real bee, rather than

just flying on a pre-programmed path and carrying out instructions.

"The benefit of an autonomous model is clear when you have complex tasks

you want to undertake," James Marshall, a computer scientist at the

University of Sheffield who is leading the three-year project, told Discovery

News.

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If the programming works as the scientists hope, the robo-bee could do things like pinpoint the odor of a gas the way a

bee looks for a certain flower. Ordinarily a robot could detect the

gas and fly a pre-programmed pattern to find the source. But a bee doesn't

have to be told to do that — it learns from experience.

The brain simulations will use hardware from NVIDIA. Graphics

processing unit accelerators, used in rendering complex three-dimensional

images, will provide a lot of the computing power necessary to

simulate a brain, even one as simple as a bee's. Marshall noted that once the

program is complete, it will run on a large computer that transmits data to the

flying robot, as it isn't yet possible to cram that much computing power into a

small space.

Even a bee has a pretty sophisticated brain. So the problem of

programming it will be broken up. The team will look at different functions of

a bee's brain and simulate those and the interactions between them. Marshall said they hope that the bee behavior will

emerge from that interaction.

The project is designed to shed light on how bees think and

how artificial intelligence differs. Given that bees are vital to

pollination of many crops, the recent stresses on bee populations are a

big concern and any new knowledge about how bees navigate their

environment would help. It might even be possible to make

artificial pollinators. (It remains to be seen whether bees would complain about

being replaced by robots).

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The actual flying machine — the artificial bee — is being designed

by a group at Harvard working on an actual robotic bee. Prior to that, though,

the bee brain program will be tested in a more conventional remote controlled

flyer. "We'll be using a rather expensive executive toy," Marshall

said.

Beyond that, the robo-bee type brain could even be used in a

search and rescue drone, or a smarter reconnaissance vehicle. "A

human rescuer isn't specifying step by step how to find people," Marshall said.

"With an AI robot you don't have to specify how to solve a problem."

Credit: Henrik Trygg/Corbis