These fish and bees can now talk to each other thanks to these robots (Image credit: EPFL)


Unless you’re watching a movie involving anthropomorphic animals, you don’t expect bees and fish to communicate with each other. But thanks to new robotics technology by European scientists, these two species can now talk to one another. A team of scientists from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Graz in Austria teamed up to create small robots that translate and deliver signals from groups of bees and schools of fish across an international border.


The team worked with honey bees and zebrafish, two species that normally wouldn’t interact with each other. They kept the animals 1,000 kilometers apart and presented them with a collective choice over the course of 30 minutes. The bees had to choose which of the two heat-emitting robots they would hover around. The fish, meanwhile, shared their tank with a fish-like robot and had to decide which direction to swim.


The bee robots were equipped with infrared sensors that allowed them to estimate the density of nearby bees. The more bees gather, the more heat the robot produced enticing even more bees to come near. The fish robot tracked the location of the fish and itself with a camera filming the aquarium and reacted to changes in the real fish’s direction by following the majority, which influenced the group’s collective decision with where to swim.


The robots were then hooked up via an internet connection. The robots recorded where the bees gravitated towards and transferred the information to the fish robot, which interpreted the news as more fish choosing a swimming direction. The information gathered by the fish robot was then transmitted to the bee robot, which interpreted the signal as more bees hovering over a particular robot.


While the experiment was a bit chaotic at first, the animals started showing responses around 25 minutes in. Both groups began to synchronize their movements, with the fish swimming counter-clockwise, which goes against their nature to swim continuously in one direction, and the bees hovering around one particular robot. The animals also started trading other each other’s characteristics, according to researchers. The bees grew more restless and were less interested in swarming as a group, while the fish started swimming together more than they usually would.


So what’s the end goal with this experiment? Researchers believe the study shows new approached for interrogating natural species interactions. Using this method, they can conduct experiments with animals to build mathematical modes of behaviors. It could also help experts create more efficient ways for robots to gather data and translate signals.


“The next step, we were thinking . . . [is] adding features to the group that the animals cannot do because they don’t have the capabilities to do so,” José Halloy, a physicist at Paris Diderot University who has been working on developing robots to interact with animals for more than a decade. “The simple and striking thing is that robots can use telecommunication or the Internet and animals cannot do that.”



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