Robotic bees and roots offer hope for a healthier environment and enough food
A robotic bee replica goes into the unsuspecting queen of the hive. But not like the rebellious replicas in the 1982 sci-fi thriller Sword Runnerthis one is here to work.
Combining miniature robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the plan is for the robotic bee to stimulate egg-laying in the queen by, for example, feeding her the right food at the right time.
Survive and thrive
“We plan to impact the entire ecosystem by interacting with just one animal, the queen,” said Dr Farshad Arvin, roboticist and computer scientist at the University of Durham in England. ‘If we can keep activities like egg laying occurring at the right time, we can expect to have healthier broods and more active and healthy colonies. This will then increase pollination.’
While that happens above the surface, shape-shifting robotic roots that can adapt and interact with native plants and fungi are hard at work underground. There, plants and their fungal partners form extensive networks.
These robotic bees and roots are being developed by two EU-funded projects. Both initiatives look at how artificial versions of living things essential to maintaining ecosystems can help real-life organisms and their environments survive and thrive – while ensuring food for humans remains abundant.
“If we can keep doing activities like laying eggs at the right time, we hope to have healthier broods.”
– Dr. Farshad Arvin, RoboRoyale
That could be critical for the long-term future of the planet, especially with many species currently facing sharp population declines as a result of threats that include habitat loss, pollution and climate change.
One of those at risk is the honey bee, a key species in insect pollination required for 75% of the crop grown for human food globally.
Fit for a queen
That RoboRoyale Arvin’s project combines micro-robot technology, biology and machine learning to maintain the welfare of honey bee queens. The project was funded by the European Innovation Council’s Pathfinder programme.
A unique aspect of RoboRoyale is its sole focus on the queen rather than the entire colony, according to Arvin. He said the idea was to show how supporting one key organism could stimulate production throughout the environment, potentially affecting hundreds of millions of organisms.
The multi-robot system, which the team hopes to begin testing in the coming months, will learn over time how to care for the queen to optimize her egg laying and production of pheromones – the chemical scents that influence nest behavior.
The system is used in artificial glass observation hives in Austria and Turkey, with replica bees designed to replace the so-called court bees that the queen normally interacts with.
Food for broodstock
One aim is for the robotic bee to potentially stimulate egg-laying by giving the queen a special protein-rich food at the right time to increase this activity. In turn, the expected benefit is that increased bee numbers and the resulting foraging flights will mean stronger pollination in the surrounding ecosystem to support plant and animal growth.
The system allows six to eight robotic court bees, some equipped with micro-cameras, to be directed into the observing hive by a controller attached to them from the outside. The ultimate goal is to make the bee robot fully autonomous.
Previously, the RoboRoyale team observed queen bees in several hives using high-resolution cameras and image analysis software to gain more insight into their behavior.
The team captured more than 150 million samples of queen trajectories in the hive and detailed footage of their social interactions with other bees. Now analyzing data.
Once the complete robotic system is adequately tested, the RoboRoyale researchers hope this will foster understanding of the potential of bio-hybrid technology not only in bees but also in other organisms.
‘This might lead to a new type of sustainable technology that has a positive impact on the surrounding ecosystem,’ said Arvin.
Wide Wood Net
other Projects, I-Woodare exploring a very different kind of social network – the underground network.
Scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa are studying what they call the Wood Wide Web. It consists of plant roots connected to each other through a symbiotic network of fungi that provide them with nutrients and help them share resources and communicate.
“Biomimicry in robotics and technology will have a fundamental role in saving our planet.”
– Dr. Barbara Mazzolai, I-Wood
To better understand these tissues and find ways to stimulate their growth, I-Wood is developing soft, deformable robotic roots that can adapt to and interact with native plants and fungi. The idea is for the roots of a robotic plant to use a miniature 3D printer on the tip to allow it to grow and branch out, layer by layer, in response to environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and available nutrients.
‘This technology will help increase knowledge about the relationship between symbionts and hosts,’ said Dr Barbara Mazzolai, IIT roboticist who led the project.
Mazzolai’s team has a greenhouse where they grow rice plants inoculated with the fungus. So far, the researchers have separately looked at root and fungal growth.
Soon, they plan to combine their findings to see how, when and where interactions between the two occur and what molecules are involved.
These findings can later be used by the I-Wood robot to help the natural symbiosis between mushrooms and roots work as effectively as possible. The team hopes to start experimenting with the robot in greenhouses later this year.
The robotic roots can be programmed to move independently, assisted by sensors at the ends, according to Mazzolai. In the same way that true roots or earthworms move underground, they will also seek paths that are easier to travel due to softer or less dense soil.
But there are challenges in combining robotics with nature.
For example, bees are sensitive to foreign matter in the hive and may remove it or coat it with wax. This makes it difficult to use items such as tracking tags.
However, the bees became more receptive after the team changed elements of the tag such as coating, material and smell, according to RoboRoyale’s Arvin.
Despite these challenges, Arvin and Mazzolai believe robotics and artificial intelligence can play an important role in protecting ecosystems and the environment in the long term. For Mazzolai, the appeal lies in the technology’s potential to offer deeper analysis of the poorly understood interactions between plants, animals and the environment.
For example, with underground networks of plant roots and fungi believed to be essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems and limiting global warming by locking up carbon, the project’s robotic roots could help explain how we can protect and support these natural processes.
“Biomimicry in robotics and technology will have a fundamental role in saving our planet,” said Mazzolai.
This article was originally published on Horizon, EU Research and Innovation magazine.
Horizon magazine delivers the latest news and features on thought-provoking science and innovative EU-funded research projects.
Horizon Magazine brings you the latest news and features on thought-provoking science and innovative EU-funded research projects.