Engineers hope to upload bee brains into robots

Researchers in the UK are hoping to create "bionic bees" by scanning honey bees' brains and uploading them into autonomous flying robots. And they're not even doing it for a sci-fi film.

Meet your future robot overlord?
(Credit: University of Sheffield)

Sometimes, real science sounds more like science fiction. Just the phrase "bionic bees" sounds like something out of an old paperback.

But that's the goal of a new project from two UK universities; the University of Sheffield and the University of Sussex. Engineers from the schools are planning to scan the brains of bees and upload the data into flying robots, with the hope that the machines will fly and act like the real thing.

The goal of the project is to create the first robots that are able to act on instinct. Researchers hope to implant a honey bee's sense of smell and sight into the flying machines, allowing the robots to act as autonomously as an insect, rather than relying on pre-programmed instructions.

Possible applications for the bionic bee include search and rescue missions at sites, such as collapsed mines, detecting chemical or gas leaks and even pollinating plants, just like a real bee.

"The development of an artificial brain is one of the greatest challenges in artificial intelligence. So far, researchers have typically studied brains such as those of rats, monkeys and humans., but actually 'simpler' organism, such as social insects, have surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities," James Marshall, head of the US$1.61 million study, said in a statement.

Researchers anticipate that developing a model for scanning and uploading an animal's brain will offer insight into how a brain's cognitive system works, potentially offering advances in understanding animal and human cognition.

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

The project — which researchers have dubbed "Green Brain" — is funded by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, with technical help from IBM and hardware donated by Nvidia. Scientists hope to have a bionic bee up and buzzing by 2015.


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