Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Innovation Features
Rupa Mahanti
Understanding data decay
AI monitors real-time data from the physical system
Katie Rapp
The future of manufacturing is about making processes more efficient
Ray Hein
It’s time to lean in to smart technology to help close the skills gap
Adam Zewe
The chip could enable lower-cost devices that perform better and use less hardware

More Features

Innovation News
Ultrasonic flaw detector now has B/C scan capability, improved connectivity, and an app to aid inspection
Tapping tooz for AR/VR competence center
Provides opportunities to deepen leadership capabilities
ASI Construction partners with end users to deliver solutions to production operations
New technology can reduce pollution, bolster energy storage
KCP25C grade with KENGold coating sets new standard for wear and productivity in steel turning
Resistant to high-pressure environments, and their 3/8-in. diameter size fits tight spaces
Algorithms protect data created and transmitted by IoT and other small electronics

More News

Orit Peleg


What a Swarm of Bees Can Teach Engineers About Robotic Materials

What if engineers could take solutions from nature and apply them to buildings?

Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2020 - 13:02

Gathered inside a small shed in the midst of a peaceful meadow, my colleagues and I are about to flip the switch to start a seemingly mundane procedure: using a motor to shake a wooden board. But underneath this board, we have a swarm of roughly 10,000 honeybees, clinging to each other in a single magnificent pulsing cone.

As we share one last look of excited concern, the swarm, literally a chunk of living material, starts to move right and left, jiggling like jelly.

Who in their right minds would shake a honeybee swarm? My colleagues and I are studying swarms to deepen our understanding of these essential pollinators, and also to see how we can leverage that understanding in the world of robotics materials.

Honeybee swarms adapt to different branch shapes. Credit: Orit Peleg and Jacob Peters

Many bees create one swarm

The swarms in our study occur as part of the reproductive cycle of European honeybee colonies. When the number of bees exceeds available resources, usually in the spring or summer, a colony divides into two groups. One group, and a queen, fly away in search of a new permanent location while the rest of the bees remain behind.

During that effort, the relocating bees temporarily form a highly adaptable swarm that can hang from tree branches, roofs, fences, or cars. While suspended, they have no nest to protect them from the elements. Huddling together allows them to minimize heat loss to the colder outside environment. They also need to adapt in real time to temperature variations, rain, and wind—all of which could shatter the fragile protection they share as one unit.

The swarm is orders of magnitude larger than the size of an individual bee. A bee could potentially coordinate its activity with neighboring bees right next to it, but it certainly couldn’t coordinate directly with any bees at the far edge of the swarm.

So how do they manage to maintain mechanical stability in the face of something like strong wind—a test that requires near-simultaneous coordination throughout the entire swarm?

My colleagues Jacob Peters, Mary Salcedo, L. Mahadevan, and I devised a series of experiments to address that question—which brings us back to intentionally shaking the swarm.

Individual actions, whole swarm response

When we shook the swarm along its horizontal axis, the bees adjusted the shape of their swarm and within minutes became a wider, more stable cone. However, when the motion was vertical, the shape remained constant until a critical force was reached that caused the swarm to break apart.

Examining the experimental setup, with the pyramidal swarm hanging from the bottom of the board. Credit: Orit Peleg and Jake Peters

Why did the bees respond to horizontal shaking, but not to vertical shaking? It’s all about how the bonds bees create by “holding hands” get stretched.

Honeybees are essentially holding hands to create the dense swarm structure. How much the bonds between two bees stretch is important information that influences their actions for the good of the swarm.

It turns out vertical shaking doesn’t disrupt these pair bonds as much as horizontal shaking does. Using a computational model, we showed that bonds between bees located closer to where the swarm attaches to the board stretch more than bonds between bees at the far tip of the swarm. Bees could sense these different amounts of stretching and use them as a directional signal to move upwards and make the swarm spread.

In other words, bees move from locations where bonds stretch less, to locations where they stretch more. This behavioral response improves the collective stability of the swarm as a whole at the expense of increasing the average burden experienced by the individual bee. The result is a kind of mechanical altruism, as the one bee endures strain for the benefit of the swarm’s greater good.

Engineering lessons, taught by bees

As a physicist studying animal behavior, I am fascinated by this kind of evolved solution in nature. It’s amazing that honeybees can create multifunctional materials—made of their many individual bodies—that can shape shift without a global conductor telling them all what to do. No one is in charge, but together they keep the swarm intact.

Bee swarms exhibit emergent intelligence, behaving as one unit.

What if engineers could take those solutions and lessons from nature and apply them to buildings? Instead of a bundle of buzzing bees, could you imagine a bundle of buzzing robots that cling on each other to create adaptive structures in real time? I can envision shelters that deploy rapidly in the face of natural disasters like hurricanes, or construction materials that can sense an earthquake’s vibrations and respond in the same way that these swarms react to a branch in wind.

Essentially, these bees create an autonomous material that, embedded within itself, has multiple abilities. The swarm can sense information from the nearby environment, based on how much the pair bonds are stretching. It can compute, in the sense that it figures out which regions have more bond stretching. And it can actuate, meaning move in the direction toward more stretching.

These properties are some of the longstanding aspirations in the fields of multifunctional materials and robotics materials. The idea is to combine affordable robots that each have a minimal amount of mechanical components and sensors, like the M-blocks. Together they can sense their local environment, interact with neighboring robots, and make their own decisions on where to move next. As Hiro, the young roboticist in the Disney movie Big Hero 6 says, “The applications to this tech are limitless.”

For the moment, this is still science fiction. But the more researchers know about the honeybees’ natural solutions, the closer we get to making that dream come true.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


About The Author

Orit Peleg’s picture

Orit Peleg

Orit Peleg is a broadly trained physicist with a passion for living systems. She is an assistant professor at the computer science department and the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute.