Researchers study bee brains to develop flying robots

Goal would be to have robots that could act as autonomously as honey bees

University researchers are studying the brains of honey bees in an attempt to build an autonomous flying robot.

By creating models of the systems in a bee's brain that control vision and sense of smell, scientists are hoping to build a flying robot that can do more than carry out pre-programmed instructions. This robot would be able to sense and act as autonomously as a bee.

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Researchers at the University of Sheffield and the University of Sussex in the U.K. are teaming up to take on what they call one of the major challenges of science today - building a robot with artificial intelligence good enough to perform complex tasks as well as an animal can.

If that's possible, the flying robot would be able to use its "sense of smell" to detect gases or other odors and then home in on the source.

"The development of an artificial brain is one of the greatest challenges in artificial intelligence," said Dr. James Marshall, lead project researcher at the University of Sheffield. "So far, researchers have typically studied brains such as those of rats, monkeys and humans, but actually simpler organisms, such as social insects, have surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities."

The universities are using GPU accelerators, donated by Nvidia Corp., to perform the massive calculations needed to simulate a brain using a standard desktop PC, instead of a far more expensive supercomputer.

Mixing brain and robotic research isn't new.

Duke University researchers reported in 2008 that they had worked with Japanese scientists to use the neurons in a monkey's brain to control a robot. Scientists hoped the project would help them find ways to give movement back to those suffering from paralysis.

That research came on the heels of work done in 2007 at the University of Arizona, where scientists successfully connected a moth's brain to a robot. The robot, linked to the brain of a hawk moth, responded to what the moth was seeing and was able to move out of the way when an object approached the moth.

Scientists working on the moth project five years ago predicted people will be using "hybrid" computers -- a combination of technology and living organic tissue - between 2017 and 2022.

In the research under way on bees' brains, the scientists said they hope their findings can be used to build flying robots that could be used in search and rescue missions, for example, to seek information and make decisions about how to proceed in their work.

"Not only will this pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots, but we also believe the computer modeling techniques we will be using will be widely useful to other brain modeling and computational neuroscience projects," said Dr. Thomas Nowotny, project leader at the University of Sussex.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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