Bionic bees — or perhaps that should be “beeonic” — could, it is hoped, be used for a range of situations where tiny thinking flying machines should be more useful than current technology, which might mean seeking out gas or chemical leaks, or people who are trapped in small spaces. They might even help pollinate plants in places where natural bee populations have fallen due to the still-mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder.
It’s important to note that this won’t be an entirely comprehensive model of a bee’s brain — it’s only going to be the parts associated with its sense of smell and vision. These modules will be melded with other software to form what the team call a ” Green Brain”, one that can react to new situations and improvise rapidly just like a “real” animal or insect brain. The project has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with a £1m grant, with Nvidia providing some of its top-end graphics processors for the development team to work with. The aim is to get the “cybee” flying by 2015.
The head of project, Dr John Marshall, said: “Not only will this pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots, 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 prospect of a robotic animal that’s as mentally capable as the thing it’s trying to mimic might seem exciting, but bear in mind that swatting one of these away might prove a little trickier. That’s especially pertinent as recent research has indicated that many insects, including bees, have personalities like vertebrates — let’s hope they upload a relatively laid-back bee’s brain, lest it go rogue.