Bee navigation hopes for developing simple drone navigation

Bees’ ability to navigate despite the simple systems they possess to analyse the way they see the world could help develop new systems for unmanned aerial vehicles

An attempt to model that way that bees can navigate around their environment despite their small brains could unlock new ways of controlling the flight of autonomous aircraft and other robots. The model, created by engineers at the University of Sheffield, attempts to explain how bees use their vision to detect movement in the world around them and avoid crashing into objects.

An image of the simulated corridor of connected virtual objects down which the team guided its 'model bee'.
An image of the simulated corridor of connected virtual objects down which the team guided its ‘model bee’.

It’s already known that bees use optic flow – monitoring how objects appear to be moving in their field of vision – to control their flight, but precisely how they do this has always been a mystery. Study of bees’ brains has only identified structures that can determine the direction of an object’s motion as the bees see it, but not its speed.

“Honeybees are excellent navigators and explorers, using vision extensively in these tasks, despite having a brain of only one million neurons,” said Alex Cope, lead researcher on the team’s paper in the Public Library of Science’s Journal of Computational Biology “Understanding how bees avoid walls, and what information they can use to navigate, moves us closer to the development of efficient algorithms for navigation and routing – which would greatly enhance the performance of autonomous flying robotics.”

Cope and his colleagues have discovered that combining the feedback of several of these ‘motion-direction’ sensing brain structures could allow the bees to sense ‘motion speed’. Effectively, this is the equivalent of ‘wiring together’ several very simple sensors to create a more complex sensor.

The team tested the theory by creating a virtual corridor whose walls were made up from a series of objects connected together. Sensing these objects as they pass through the virtual bee’s field of vision on both sides guided the insect along the corridor.

If their assumption is true, added Prof James Marshall, lead investigator on the story, it could explain that despite bees’ powerful navigation abilities, they still fly into windows. “since they are transparent they generate hardly any optic flow as bees approach them,” he said.

Using this approach in robotics could allow a navigation system to be built up from relatively simple, low-cost and low-power sensors. The team is part of a project at Sheffield called Green Brain, which aims to construct a digital model of the brain of a honeybee and use it to fly a small drone using only the inputs the bee would have to navigate: sight and smell. As bees have simpler brains than even rats or mice, which have a hundred times as many nerve cells, the project’s aim is to understand how the bees’ brain works and then to attempt to copy this.

The next phase of the project will be to understand how bees use vision to determine which direction they are pointing in, and how they then use this information to solve the tasks they face in their lives.