Aggressive bees may track future of flying robots

23 Aug 2007

Angry bees that fly like mini-missiles could map the futures of unmanned aircraft and planetary explorer robots, thanks to new University of Queensland research backed by the Queensland Government.

Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, Professor of Visual Neuroscience at UQ's Queensland Brain Institute, will lead a $2.5m project aiming to improve robot technology including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), through better understanding of bee behaviour. Professor Srinivasan is winner of the $1.25m 2007 Smart State Premier's Fellowship, which is matched by funding from UQ.

“Professor Srinivasan's unique marriage of biology and engineering will help to put Queensland on the map at a time where enhanced surveillance and security are key priorities for governments and leaders around the world,” Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said when announcing the award today (August 23, 2007).

Professor Srinivasan and his team have spent more than two decades unlocking the mysteries of bee vision and navigation and are now investigating how bee emotions, particularly aggression, can improve robotics.

Research of aggressive bees is unprecedented, he said. Worker bees are generally docile – until a guard bee protecting the hive emits an alarm hormone to signal the hive is endangered.

“Normal bees are fairly peaceful when they go out hunting for food, but the moment they get a whiff of alarm pheromone from a guard bee the entire colony mobilises. The flight dynamic changes and they become like little fighter aircraft or missiles,” Professor Srinivasan said.

Bees' small but smart brains and nervous systems have evolved a “visuomotor” system that enables them to track moving objects with pinpoint accuracy.

Professor Srinivasan's research has previously been funded by NASA and now has funding from the US Airforce. Its practical potential is diverse.

It could be used for aerial coastal surveillance, weather monitoring and minerals exploration. The technology also has potential to reduce the risk to soldiers involved in peace-keeping and combat situations, who might one day have portable UAVs to send on reconnaissance missions.

The research could also lead to planetary explorer robots that are able to behave autonomously, in the same way as insects. This would be much more effective than robots controlled remotely from Earth, given a long signal delay between Mars and Earth, Professor Srinivasan said.

Professor Srinivasan is the second UQ researcher to be awarded the Smart State Premier's Fellowship, which is now in its second year. Professor Ian Frazer, Director of UQ's Diamantina Institute for Cancer, Immunology and Metabolic Medicine, who co-invented the world's first vaccine for cervical cancer, became the first Fellow in 2006.

UQ's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor David Siddle, congratulated Professor Srinivasan and welcomed the Queensland Government's on-going commitment to funding pioneering research.

“This funding will promote UQ's, Queensland's and Australia's positions at the cutting-edge of neurobiology, as well as our involvement in the aerospace industry,” Professor Siddle said.

“There is already a history of research on insect vision being applied to navigation, thanks largely to the work of Professor Srinivasan and his team. Given this record of success, there is a strong chance that this new research project will reveal computationally elegant strategies with applications to UAV technology.”

The Smart State Premier's Fellowship, worth $250,000 per annum for five years, is provided under Round Two of the $200m Smart State Innovation Funds.


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Notes to the Editor
The Queensland Brain Institute was formed in 2003 as part of the Queensland Government’s Smart State Initiative, building on a long history of neuroscience at The University of Queensland. QBI is dedicated to understanding the molecular basis of brain function and applying this knowledge to the development of new therapeutics to treat brain and mental health disorders.

Professor Srinivasan won the Prime Minister's Prize for Science in 2006 and is the 2008 winner of the Rank Prize for Optoelectronics. He was an inaugural Australian Research Council (ARC) Federation Fellow and is a Fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London. He is also a member of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision. His efforts have resulted in more than 180 published papers, including 21 in high-impact journal articles in publications such as Nature, Science and Current Biology.