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Bees' brains for robot planes?

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

Bees use their brains, the size of sesame seeds, so cleverly that an Australian scientist believes humans may manage to adapt the tiny insects' methods when designing pilotless flying machines. It sounds like a fanciful dream - but NASA and the US military are backing his research with substantial grants.

Dr. Mandyam Srinivasan, biological science researcher at Australian National University, has won the Prime Minister's Prize for Science - a gold medal and a $300,000 cheque.

Presenting the award, Prime Minister John Howard said "Designs for robots are often expensive and complex. A bee can take off, find targets, fly through tunnels, navigate home and land without any of that complexity.

"What started 23 years ago as basic research with no apparent application is now followed closely by robotics experts around the world. Professor Srinivasan is looking at bee emotions, work that is also likely to find application in the design of the machines of tomorrow."

Dr. Srinivasan said "When we started this basic work on bees, we had no idea that the applications to flying machines would be imminent. I had no idea at all, so it was others who told me, 'Look, there are actually things you can do that can be useful to mankind'."

Six years ago, the professor presented a lecture entitled "Small brains, smart minds," to the annual symposium of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS).

"Anyone who has tried to swat a fly, or marvelled at a bee going home from a flower patch several kilometres away, will know that insects have a visual system that is fast, reliable and accurate," he said. "How do they do this with such small brains? If they use short cuts, could the methods be used in the design of machines and robots?

He described his research aimed at understanding the mechanisms underlying honeybees' visual perception, navigation, learning, memory and 'cognition' and comparing these with human performance.

"Bees are not automatons, but lessons learned from them can be applied to automatons." he said. "Robots are a good way to explore remote, inhospitable terrain, such as the surface of Mars, or areas containing land mines. With a large number of small robots (like an army of ants), the search will be more efficient and robust than it would be with one expensive robot. A distributed system is better than a centralised one."

At question time, a schoolboy scientist in the audience asked: "How much variance was there in the bees? Are some more stupid than others?"

Professor Srinivasan replied: " There was a variance of 20 per cent in performing the tasks. My wife called one bee Srini because when he was faced with a choice he took such a long time to make up his mind."

At a National Science Week conference last year, he was asked, "When a fly lands on the bottom of a horizontal surface, does it do a barrel role or a loop-the-loop?"

He replied, "Nobody knows for sure, but the few high-speed movies that have been taken of flies landing on a ceiling suggest that they do something similar to a 'loop-the-loop'. Actually it is not a fully flying loop-the-loop: the fly approaches the ceiling from below and when it is close enough to the ceiling it stretches out its front legs so that its front feet touch the ceiling. Then it flips over, pivoting about its front feet -- it does a back somersault."

Mandyam Srinivasan gained an undergraduate degree at Bangalore University and a Master's at the Indian Institute of Science, both in Electrical Engineering. Later, in the US, he earned a Ph.D. by studying the visual behaviour of flies. Then, as a Research Fellow at the Australian National University, he learnt how to record the electrical responses of nerve cells in insect brains. He accepted an Assistant Professorship at the University of Zurich, where he switched from flies to bees and returned to the Australian National University in 1985. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and an Inaugural Australian Research Council Federation Fellow.

This story has also been published by the South Korean citizen reporters' journal OhmyNewsInternational

Story first posted November 2006

Copyright 2006

Eric Shackle

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