A colony of bees in Austria and a school of fish in Switzerland have become unlikely allies. In experiments run by several European universities, the two very different animal species were able to communicate and coordinate their movements long-distance with the help of some robotic interpreters.
The quirky project was born out of EPFL’s Mobile Robotics Group (MOBOTS), which has been developing robots that can blend in with animal communities and influence their behavior. In 2017, the lab designed a fish robot that was realistic enough to fool a school of zebrafish, and the real animals soon began to follow the impostor’s lead.
For the new study, the team hooked the fish robot up to another robotic system infiltrating a different animal population – a hive of honeybees. In each case, the robots had been designed to signal to the creatures in ways they could understand. For the fish, that meant being made with certain shapes, colors and stripes, as well as accelerating, vibrating and moving their tails in certain ways. The robots that lived with the bees communicated through vibrations, air movements and temperature variations.
Each of these robotic systems monitored the animals around them, then sent that data to the other robots, which would then translate it into signals for the other species. In that way, the robots acted like interpreters between the two animal populations, even though they were located about 700 km (435 mi) apart.
“We created an unprecedented bridge between the two animal communities, enabling them to exchange some of their dynamics,” says Frank Bonnet, corresponding author of the study. “The species even started adopting some of each other’s characteristics. The bees became a little more restless and less likely to swarm together than usual, and the fish started to group together more than they usually would.”
Each species had two choices – the fish could swim clockwise or anticlockwise around a ring, while the bees could swarm to one of two robot terminals. The robots in each setup were effectively controlled by the other species of animals: when the fish swam one way, the fish robot would activate one of the robots in the hive, which should attract more bees to that one, and vice versa. The idea was that this feedback loop should eventually lead to all fish swimming in one direction, and all bees around one terminal.
As would be expected in this kind of experiment, the conversation between the two species started off pretty haphazardly. But after 25 minutes, both groups were in sync: the fish were all swimming in a counterclockwise direction around the tank, while the bees had all swarmed around one robot in particular.
“The robots acted as if they were negotiators and interpreters in an international conference,” says Francesco Mondada, an author of the study. “Through the various information exchanges, the two groups of animals gradually came to a shared decision.”
The team says the research could lead to better and less invasive ways to monitor animal behavior, and possibly even influence flocks, swarms and schools in the wild. For example, robotic birds could steer real ones away from airports to prevent needing to cull them, or bees could be driven towards crops that need pollinating and away from those that have been treated with pesticides.