CATCH THE BUZZ – Fish and Bees “Talk” with Help from Robot Translators.

Jef Akst

One-day-old honey bees gather around a heat-emitting robot (left) while zebrafish swim with a robot in a donut-shaped aquarium. When the bee and fish robots transmit information about the behavior of the surrounding animals, it influences the behavior of both groups. FRANK BONNET/EPFL

A robot interacting with young honey bees in Graz, Austria, exchanged information with a robot swimming with zebrafish in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the robots’ communication influenced the behavior of each animal group, according to a study published in Science Robotics today (March 20).

“It’s the first time that people are using this kind of technology to have two different species communicate with each other,” says Simon Garnier, a complex systems biologist at New Jersey Institute of Technology who did not participate in the study. “It’s a proof of concept that you can have robots mediate interactions between distant groups.” He adds, however, that the specific applications of such a setup remains to be seen.

As robotics technology has advanced, biologists have sought to harness it, building robots that look and behave like animals. This has allowed researchers to control one side of social interactions in studies of animal behavior. Robots that successfully integrate into animal populations also provide scientists with a means to influence the groups’ behavior.

See “Send in the Bots

“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 intelligently with animals for more than a decade, writes in an email. “The simple and striking thing is that robots can use telecommunication or the Internet and animals cannot do that.”

In the new work, Halloy teamed up with collaborators at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), the University of Graz in Austria, and elsewhere to have two different animal-robot societies interact via modern communications technology. The researchers worked with two very different species that wouldn’t normally interact in nature—honey bees and zebrafish—and they housed the experimental animals more than 1,000 kilometers apart. “What we did is a bit extreme,” admits coauthor and EPFL engineer Frank Bonnet.

In 30-minute trials, the teams presented the animals with a collective choice. In the case of bees, that choice was which of two heat-emitting robots they would gather around, while the zebrafish, which shared their donut-shaped tank with a fish-like robot, would decide which direction to swim. Both the robots in the bee colony and the fish robot interacted with the real animals as the experiments took place. The bee robots have infrared sensors that allow them to estimate density of nearby bees, and as more bees clustered, the robots produced more heat, enticing more bees to gather around. The fish robot detects the location of the fish and itself with a camera filming the aquarium, and responds to changes in the real fish’s direction by following the majority, which in turn influences the group’s collective decision about which way to swim.