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Learning Bee-havior

A Northeastern University neurobiologist will bring his expertise in animal robotics to a five-year, $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Expeditions research project to develop robobees that mimic the communal feeding behavior of bee colonies.

Biology professor Joseph Ayers will collaborate with a team of researchers from Harvard University to develop micro flying robots with the technology to emulate the bees’ brain, body and collective behavior.

The project will draw on the knowledge of computer scientists, engineers and biologists to construct an electronic nervous system, a supervisory architecture and a high-energy source to power the innovative robots.

“This project will integrate the efforts and expertise of a diverse team of investigators to create a system that far transcends the sum of its parts,” said Ayers, who is a principal researcher at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center. “We expect substantial advances in basic science at the intersection of these seemingly disparate disciplines to result from this effort.”

Inspired by the biology of the bee and the insect’s colonial behavior, the project aims to advance miniature robotics and the design of compact high-energy power sources; spur innovations in ultra-low-power computing and electronic “smart” sensors that mediate biomimetic control; and refine coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines.

Ayers is widely known for his work in biomimetics— the science of adapting the control systems found in nature to inform design of engineered systems to solve real-world problems—including the development of RoboLobster and RoboLamprey. The autonomous, biomimetic underwater robotic models emulate the operations of the animals’ nervous systems using an electronic controller based on nonlinear, moving models of neurons and synapses.

“Animals have evolved to occupy every environmental niche where we would hope to operate robots, save outer space,” said Ayers. “They provide proven solutions to problems that confound even the most sophisticated robots, and our challenge is to capture these performance advantages in engineered devices.”

Ayers will work in collaboration with Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and CentEye, Inc., funded by the NSF’s Expeditions in Computing program. Established last year by the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), the program provides funding for researchers to pursue ambitious, fundamental projects that hold the promise to redefine the future of computing and information. For more information about the Expeditions project, visit

Jenny Catherine Eriksen | Newswise Science News
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