Bees Waggle Dance Inspires Robots to Communicate



The world around us is a hidden wonder, and nature often does the better things that humans can muddle. Using biomimicry for inventions has become a passion for many scientists, resulting in a positive outcome. 

When we look at beautiful butterflies, we think of warm lazy days, gorgeous colors, and probably pretty things, like rainbows and flowers. But the researchers at the General Electric Research Center and the University of Albany, New York, have seen something more. They have developed a material by taking inspiration from the Morpho butterflies' wings, enabling them to better detect heat while cooling more efficiently. 

The wings of the butterflies are covered with tiny scales; in the case of the Morpho, the scales reflect some wavelengths of light while absorbing others, which creates an iridescent effect. When the butterfly's wing heats up, it changes color; an effect that the research team believes could duplicate cheap thermal-imaging sensors.

Not only butterflies, even the bullet trains or Japan's Shinkansen, which can travel at a speed of 300 kilometers per hour, often encounter problems in the tunnel boom. When the train enters through a tunnel, it creates a massive amount of air pressure, resulting in a large sonic boom as the train exits. But the researchers and manufacturers found the solution by taking the example of the kingfisher bird. The shape of the bird's head and, most importantly, the beak means it can enter the water for prey with almost no splash. When the same aerodynamic shape was applied to the front of the bullet train, it eliminated the tunnel boom completely and, as a side bonus, shaved around 10-15 percent of the energy usage of the train.

Biomimicry in Human Inventions

Likewise, the buzzing honeybees; once a honey bee finds a patch of flowers where it can extract nectar, it returns to the hive to warn the other bees. The bee performs a wagging dance to inform other bees of the location of the flower bed. Other bees explicate the movements and duration of the dance to understand where the flower patch is in relation to the hive.

By taking inspiration from honey bees, an international team of researchers has developed gesture identification that allows robots to communicate with each other by dancing through a coordinated set of gestures to convey information. Scientists used a similar technique to teach two robots to communicate through dance. 

Abhra Roy Chowdhury, head of the Robotics Innovation Lab at the Product Design and Manufacturing Center of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, says, “A visual communication system is developed for robots with onboard cameras, using algorithms that allow the robots to interpret what they see. The humans and robots communicate using gestures, such as a raised hand with a closed fist.”


Can Robots Interpret What They See?

Chowdhury and his co-author Kaustubh Joshi, a doctoral student and research assistant at the University of Maryland, developed a proof-of-concept for the communication system by using two robots that serve as proxies for package handling robots.

At first, a human operator used hand gestures raised or clenched fists to convey a coded message containing the package's location. The robot detects these gestures and decodes the message to understand the package location based on a map of the environment encoded into it. It can then convey the same information to a second robot through a dance. The robots could successfully interpret and relay the information 93.33 percent of the time during experiments.

Robots mostly communicate with each other using different digital networks, including wireless communication. According to Chowdhury, there could be situations where network communications aren’t available, but robot labor is required, like in disaster zones or during spacewalks. Since the robots in the study used simple cameras to identify the gestures, the technology has the potential for scalability.

As we know, robots do not speak a language like English. Instead, they speak a computer language that allows them to receive and transmit commands. Perhaps they can coordinate their timing when completing a task they need to do together or tell each other what actions need to be done. The communication system is wireless and uses a common domain language to transmit and receive commands that allow the robots to converse about the task, allowing them to better optimize their performance. Cobot is a Robot designed at Carnegie Mellon that specializes in localization and navigation. It is designed in such a way that it can autonomously find locations, navigate to them, and avoid obstacles. If CoBot has any trouble getting to its destination, it can even stop to ask a human for assistance. Even though CoBot currently does not have arms, it can pick up and transport objects with human help.

Another one is Baxter. It is a robot designed by Rethink Robotics to perform lightweight monotonous tasks generally completed by humans. The robot consists of an arm, vacuum cup grippers, and an optional pedestal with wheels, allowing it to be moved around, though it cannot move itself. The collaboration between CoBot and Baxter will allow Baxter to manipulate objects and then hand them off to CoBot to deliver to a human. For example, Baxter could cook an egg and have CoBot serve it.

When we talk about the swarm robots, they are modeled on ant foraging and were able to efficiently tackle the classic traveling salesman problem. This is the problem of determining the quickest route to go between many different cities. As humans, we find this problem easy because we excel at pattern recognition; however, it is actually very challenging for a computer. In order to solve the problem, a computer would need to calculate the distance of every possible route that could be taken to get to each city, which is computationally intense. Even though there are possible routes once the distance begins to exceed known shorter distances, it is not an efficient solution. Yet, ants are able to solve similar problems and coordinate foraging with little communication or intelligence and no assistance from a map.

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