Bees are becoming an inspiration for independent drones

The original news release was published by the Lund University Press Office.

Research into behavior and flying patterns of green orchidee bees reveals possible future for autonomous unmanned aircraft and small robots. The way in which these bees assess the incoming light enables them to navigate through dense vegetation and avoid obstacles. An automatized version of this system could mean that flying robots will not require constant ground control in the not too distant future.

And it is in fact a really simple system – as found by Emily Baird and Marie Dacke at the Department of Biology in Lund. The bees possess a very small brain and their eyesight has low resolution, and yet they are able to move through extremely dense environments without crashing. It has been found that what they lack in being able to see the details in their surroundings, they make up with strong photosensitivity and efficient pattern recognition. Simply put – their ability to spot gaps and holes in foliage (and to adjust their flight accordingly) is really good. The intensity of the incoming light then tells them whether or not the hole is large enough to fly through. Easy.

“Using light to navigate in complex environments is a universal strategy that can be applied by both animals and machines to detect openings and get through them safely. Really, the coolest thing is the fact that insects have developed simple strategies to cope with difficult problems for which engineers have still to come up with a solution”, says Emily Baird.

Baird went on to say: “Their strategy is super simple. They measure their speed and their height above the ground by registering how quickly the pattern they see is coming towards them and moving across their eyes. This way, they have surrounding objects come at them at a constant speed when flying. If they are in a complex environment with dense vegetation, they will automatically fly slower than if they are flying in open terrain where objects are not as close”.

There are still ways to go before our drones start taking after green orchidee bees – the discovered system needs to be put into the hands of engineers. But the underlying principles are fairly simple, and with sophisticated and elegant results.