A bee’s eye view

Scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra believe that their research into the vision systems of bees may have applications for the design of autonomous robots and navigation systems.

The researchers have observed that when bees return to their nest after finding food, they perform a dance to communicate to other bees the distance and direction of the food source. After travelling long distances they perform a distinct ‘waggle dance’, whereas after short distances, they perform a ’round dance’.

By training bees to fly a short distance into a narrow, patterned tunnel to find a food reward, and observing the bee’s dances when they returned to the hive, the researchers were surprised to see that bees which had flown only a few metres performed a ‘waggle dance’, falsely perceiving that they had travelled a relatively long distance. This, say the scientists, indicates that bees use vision and not energy consumption to gauge distance and direction.

It is precisely because of the minuscule size of the bee’s brain that the researchers believe it will be so useful for robot vision systems. Here is a creature that is less intelligent than most computers. It should not, therefore, be difficult to replicate its vision systems in a machine.

Bees use some very interesting techniques that the researchers believe it will be possible to borrow. For example, distances to objects are gauged in terms of the apparent speeds of motion of the objects’ images, rather than by using complex stereo mechanisms , and bees distinguish objects from backgrounds by sensing the apparent relative motion at the boundary between object and background. Furthermore, Bees flying through a tunnel remain equidistant to the walls by balancing the apparent speeds of the images of the walls, while the speed of flight in the tunnel is regulated by holding constant the average image velocity as seen by the two eyes.