Robotic bees and roots offer hope of healthier environment and sufficient food

Robotic bees and roots offer hope of healthier environment and sufficient food

Robotics and AI can help build healthier bee colonies, benefiting biodiversity and food supply. © 0 Lorenzo Bernini 0,

Robotic bee replicants take home the undisputed queen of a hive. But not like the rebel replicants in the 1982 sci-fi thriller Blade Runnerthey are here to work.

Combining miniature robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the plan is for robotic bees to stimulate egg-laying in the queen by, for example, feeding her the right foods at the right time.

Live and thrive

‘We plan to affect an entire ecosystem by interacting with just one single animal, the queen,’ said Dr Farshad Arvin, a roboticist and computer scientist at the University of Durham in the UK. ‘If we can keep activities like egg laying happening at the right time, we can expect to have healthier broods and more active and healthy colonies. This will improve pollination.’

While that continues on the surface, shape-morphing robot roots that can adapt and interact with real plants and fungi are hard at work underground. There, plants and their fungal partners form a vast network.

These robotic bees and roots were developed by two EU-funded projects. Both initiatives look at how artificial versions of living things central to sustaining ecosystems can help real-life organisms and their environment survive and thrive – while ensuring that food for people remain abundant.

“If we can keep activities like egg laying happening at the right time, we can expect to have healthier broods.”

– Dr Farshad Arvin, RoboRoyale

That could be important to the long-term future of the planet, especially with many species currently facing severe population declines as a result of threats that include habitat loss, pollution and climate change.

One of those at risk is the honey bee, a keystone species in insect pollination required for 75% of crops raised for human consumption worldwide.

Fit for a queen

The RoboRoyale project led by Arvin that combines microrobotic, biological and machine-learning technologies to care for the welfare of the queen honeybee. The project is funded by the Pathfinder program of the European Innovation Council.

A unique aspect of RoboRoyale is its sole focus on the queen rather than the entire colony, according to Arvin. He says the idea is to show how supporting one key organism can stimulate production throughout the environment, potentially affecting hundreds of millions of organisms.

The multi-robot system, which the team hopes to begin testing in the coming months, will learn over time how to adjust the queen to optimize her egg-laying and production of pheromones – chemical scents which influences nest behavior.

The system is being installed in artificial glass observation hives in Austria and Turkey, with bee replicants designed to replace the so-called court bees that normally interact with the queen.

Foods for broods

One goal is that robotic bees could potentially stimulate egg-laying by feeding the queen specific protein-rich foods at the right time to boost this activity. In turn, an expected benefit is that the resulting increase in bees and foraging flights will mean stronger pollination of the surrounding ecosystem to support plant and animal growth.

The system allows six to eight robotic court bees, some equipped with microcameras, to be guided inside the observation hive by a controller attached to them from the outside. The ultimate goal is to make the robot bees fully autonomous.

The concept design of the RoboRoyale robotic controller. © Farshad Arvin, 2023

Before this, the RoboRoyale team observed queen bees in several hives using high-resolution cameras and image-analysis software to gain more insight into their behavior.

The team obtained more than 150 million samples of the queens’ trajectories within the hive and detailed footage of their social interactions with other bees. It is now analyzing the data.

Once the entire robotic system is sufficiently tested, RoboRoyale researchers hope it will advance understanding of the potential for bio-hybrid technology not only in bees but also in other organisms.

‘This could lead to a new kind of sustainable technology that positively affects the surrounding ecosystems,’ says Arvin.

Wood Wide Web

Another project, I-Woodexplores a different kind of social network – one that is underground.

Scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa are studying what they call the Wood Wide Web. It consists of plant roots connected to each other by a symbiotic network of fungi that provide them with nutrients and help them share resources and communicate.

“Biomimicry in robotics and technology will play a major role in saving our planet.”

– Dr Barbara Mazzolai, I-Wood

To better understand these networks and find ways to stimulate their growth, I-Wood is developing soft, shape-changing robotic roots that can adapt and interact with real plants and fungi. The idea is for a robotic plant root to use a miniaturized 3D printer on its tip to enable it to grow and branch, layer by layer, in response to environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and available nutrients.

‘These technologies will help to increase knowledge about the relationship between symbionts and hosts,’ said Dr Barbara Mazzolai, an IIT roboticist who leads the project.

Mazzolai’s team has a greenhouse where it grows rice infected with fungi. So far, researchers have analyzed the growth of roots and fungi separately.

Soon, they plan to combine their findings to see how, when and where the interaction between the two occurs and what molecules are involved.

The findings can later be used by I-Wood robots to help the natural symbiosis between fungi and roots work as effectively as possible. The team hopes to begin experimenting with the robots in the greenhouse by the end of this year.

Robotic roots can be programmed to move autonomously, aided by sensors on their tips, according to Mazzolai. Just like the way real roots or earthworms move underground, they will also find paths that are easier to pass through because of softer or less compacted soil.

Trading tweaks

But there are challenges in integrating robotics with nature.

For example, bees are sensitive to alien objects in their hive and may remove or wax them. This makes items like tracking tags difficult to use.

The bees, however, became more receptive after the team tweaked elements of the tags such as their coating, materials and smell, according to RoboRoyale’s Arvin.

Despite these challenges, Arvin and Mazzolai believe that robotics and artificial intelligence can play an important part in sustaining ecosystems and the environment in the long term. For Mazzolai, the appeal lies in the technologies’ potential to offer deeper analysis of poorly understood interactions among plants, animals and the environment.

For example, given the underground web of plant roots and fungi believed to be important in maintaining healthy ecosystems and limiting global warming by locking in carbon, the robotic roots project will help shed light on how we these natural processes can be protected and supported.

‘Biomimicry in robotics and technology will play a major role in saving our planet,’ said Mazzolai.

This article was originally published on Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

Horizon Magazine
brings you the latest news and features about thought-provoking science and innovative EU-funded research projects.

Horizon Magazine brings you the latest news and features about thought science and innovative EU-funded research projects.