Researchers from the University of Graz, Czech Technical University, and the Middle East Technical University are working towards "ecosystem hacking" via robotic honeybees, infiltrating a colony and interacting with its queen to influence the behavior of the entire colony.
"Honey bees live in colonies of thousands of individuals, that not only need to collaborate with each other but also to interact intensively with their ecosystem," the researchers explain in an article brought to our attention by MIT Technology Review. "A small group of robots operating in a honey bee colony and interacting with the queen bee, a central colony element, has the potential to change the collective behavior of the entire colony and thus also improve its interaction with the surrounding ecosystem. Such a system can be used to study and understand many elements of bee behavior within hives that have not been adequately researched."
While the idea of making robotic bees isn't new — and turned out to have some unpleasant consequences when explored in the fictional dystopic anthology series Black Mirror — the team's approach doesn't aim to replace nature with robotics outright. Instead, the researchers propose a "minimally invasive form of conservation" in which a small number of robots operate within the colony to impact the dynamics of the queen bee's court — not only allowing for the bees' behavior to be monitored in more detail than ever before but directly influenced.
"Our model is intended to serve as an AI-enhanceable coordination software for future robotic court bee surrogates and as a hardware controller for generating nature-like behavior patterns for such a robotic ensemble," the team explains. "It is the first step towards a team of robots working in a bio-compatible way to study honey bees and to increase their pollination performance, thus achieving a stabilizing effect at the ecosystem level."
The work is taking place in two separate but related programs, dubbed Hiveopolis and RoboRoyale. The former focuses on the creation of "a modern society of honey bee colonies, which is fully adapted to present-day challenges such as pesticides, parasites, climate change, or urban environments" through technology including "an inbuilt dance robot" designed to direct forager bees away from harmful food sources and towards better locations; the latter works to create technologies, both robotic and biological, which can support the queen bee's well-being — in everything from feeding and grooming to pheromone transfer.
The team's model is explained in detail in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI under open-access terms; additional information on Hiveopolis and RoboRoyale are available on their respective websites.