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

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

The robotic bee replicants home in on the unsuspecting queen of a hive. But unlike the rebellious replicants in the 1982 sci-fi thriller Blade Runner, these ones are here to work.

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

Survive and thrive

‘We plan to affect a whole ecosystem by interacting with only 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 are expecting to have healthier broods and more active and healthy colonies. This will then improve pollination.’

While that goes on above 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 vast networks.

These robotic bees and roots are being developed by two EU-funded projects. Both initiatives are looking into how artificial versions of living things central to maintaining ecosystems can help real-life organisms and their environment survive and thrive – while ensuring food for people remains plentiful.

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

– Dr Farshad Arvin, RoboRoyale

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

One of those at risk is the honeybee, a keystone species in the insect pollination required for 75% of crops grown for human food globally.

Fit for a queen

The RoboRoyale project that Arvin leads combines microrobotic, biological and machine-learning technologies to nurture the queen honeybee’s well-being. The project is funded by the European Innovation Council’s Pathfinder programme.

A unique aspect of RoboRoyale is its sole focus on the queen rather than the entire colony, according to Arvin. He said the idea is to demonstrate how supporting a single key organism can stimulate production in the whole environment, potentially affecting hundreds of millions of organisms.

The multi-robot system, which the team hopes to start testing in the coming months, will learn over time how to groom the queen to optimise her egg laying and production of pheromones – chemical scents that influence the behaviour of the hive.

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

Foods for broods

One aim is that the robot bees can potentially stimulate egg laying by providing the queen with specific protein-rich foods at just the right time to boost this activity. In turn, an expected benefit is that a resulting increase in bees and foraging flights would mean stronger pollination of the surrounding ecosystem to support plant growth and animals.

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

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

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

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

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

‘It might lead to a novel type of sustainable technology that positively impacts surrounding ecosystems,’ said Arvin.

Wood Wide Web

The other project, I-Wood, is exploring a very different type of social network – one that’s 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 through a symbiotic network of fungi that provide them with nutrients and help them to share resources and communicate.

“Biomimicry in robotics and technology will have a fundamental role in saving our planet.”

– Dr Barbara Mazzolai, I-Wood

To understand these networks better 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 miniaturised 3D printer in its tip to enable it to grow and branch out, 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 plants inoculated with fungi. So far, the researchers have separately examined the growth of roots and fungi.

Soon, they plan to merge their findings to see how, when and where the interaction between the two occurs and what molecules it involves.

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

The robotic roots can be programmed to move autonomously, helped by sensors in their tips, according to Mazzolai. Like the way real roots or earthworms move underground, they will also seek passages that are easier to move through due to softer or less compact soil.

Tweaks of the trade

But there are challenges in combining robotics with nature.

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

The bees have, however, become more accepting after the team tweaked elements of the tags such as their coating, materials and smell, according to Arvin of RoboRoyale.

Despite these challenges, Arvin and Mazzolai believe robotics and artificial intelligence could play a key 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 little-understood interactions among plants, animals and the environment.

For instance, with the underground web of plant roots and fungi believed to be crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems and limiting global warming by locking up carbon, the project’s robotic roots can help shed light on how we can protect and support these natural processes.

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

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

Robot Talk Episode 41 – Alessandra Rossi

Claire chatted to Alessandra Rossi from the University of Naples all about social robotics, theory of mind, and robots playing football.

Alessandra Rossi is Assistant Professor at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy. Her PhD thesis was part of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie ETN SECURE project at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, and she is now a Visiting Lecturer and Researcher there. Her research interests include human-robot interaction, social robotics, explainable AI, multi-agent systems and user profiling. She is the team leader of RoboCup team Bold Hearts at the University of Hertfordshire, and Executive Committee member of the RoboCup Humanoid League.

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Animals have always been a great inspiration for robotic systems, as they offer fascinating natural examples of how different body structures can produce specific movements and locomotion styles. While most animal-inspired robots are inspired by legged animal species, some roboticists have been exploring the potential of robots with bodies that resemble those of other animals, including snakes.

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Mix-and-match kit could enable astronauts to build a menagerie of lunar exploration bots

A team of MIT engineers is designing a kit of universal robotic parts that an astronaut could easily mix and match to build different robot “species” to fit various missions on the moon. Credit: hexapod image courtesy of the researchers, edited by MIT News

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

When astronauts begin to build a permanent base on the moon, as NASA plans to do in the coming years, they’ll need help. Robots could potentially do the heavy lifting by laying cables, deploying solar panels, erecting communications towers, and building habitats. But if each robot is designed for a specific action or task, a moon base could become overrun by a zoo of machines, each with its own unique parts and protocols.

To avoid a bottleneck of bots, a team of MIT engineers is designing a kit of universal robotic parts that an astronaut could easily mix and match to rapidly configure different robot “species” to fit various missions on the moon. Once a mission is completed, a robot can be disassembled and its parts used to configure a new robot to meet a different task.

The team calls the system WORMS, for the Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System. The system’s parts include worm-inspired robotic limbs that an astronaut can easily snap onto a base, and that work together as a walking robot. Depending on the mission, parts can be configured to build, for instance, large “pack” bots capable of carrying heavy solar panels up a hill. The same parts could be reconfigured into six-legged spider bots that can be lowered into a lava tube to drill for frozen water.

“You could imagine a shed on the moon with shelves of worms,” says team leader George Lordos, a PhD candidate and graduate instructor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), in reference to the independent, articulated robots that carry their own motors, sensors, computer, and battery. “Astronauts could go into the shed, pick the worms they need, along with the right shoes, body, sensors and tools, and they could snap everything together, then disassemble it to make a new one. The design is flexible, sustainable, and cost-effective.”

Lordos’ team has built and demonstrated a six-legged WORMS robot. Last week, they presented their results at IEEE’s Aerospace Conference, where they also received the conference’s Best Paper Award.

MIT team members include Michael J. Brown, Kir Latyshev, Aileen Liao, Sharmi Shah, Cesar Meza, Brooke Bensche, Cynthia Cao, Yang Chen, Alex S. Miller, Aditya Mehrotra, Jacob Rodriguez, Anna Mokkapati, Tomas Cantu, Katherina Sapozhnikov, Jessica Rutledge, David Trumper, Sangbae Kim, Olivier de Weck, Jeffrey Hoffman, along with Aleks Siemenn, Cormac O’Neill, Diego Rivero, Fiona Lin, Hanfei Cui, Isabella Golemme, John Zhang, Jolie Bercow, Prajwal Mahesh, Stephanie Howe, and Zeyad Al Awwad, as well as Chiara Rissola of Carnegie Mellon University and Wendell Chun of the University of Denver.

Animal instincts

WORMS was conceived in 2022 as an answer to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge — an annual competition for university students to design, develop, and demonstrate a game-changing idea. In 2022, NASA challenged students to develop robotic systems that can move across extreme terrain, without the use of wheels.

A team from MIT’s Space Resources Workshop took up the challenge, aiming specifically for a lunar robot design that could navigate the extreme terrain of the moon’s South Pole — a landscape that is marked by thick, fluffy dust; steep, rocky slopes; and deep lava tubes. The environment also hosts “permanently shadowed” regions that could contain frozen water, which, if accessible, would be essential for sustaining astronauts.

As they mulled over ways to navigate the moon’s polar terrain, the students took inspiration from animals. In their initial brainstorming, they noted certain animals could conceptually be suited to certain missions: A spider could drop down and explore a lava tube, a line of elephants could carry heavy equipment while supporting each other down a steep slope, and a goat, tethered to an ox, could help lead the larger animal up the side of a hill as it transports an array of solar panels.

“As we were thinking of these animal inspirations, we realized that one of the simplest animals, the worm, makes similar movements as an arm, or a leg, or a backbone, or a tail,” says deputy team leader and AeroAstro graduate student Michael Brown. “And then the lightbulb went off: We could build all these animal-inspired robots using worm-like appendages.’”

The research team in Killian Court at MIT. Credit: Courtesy of the researchers

Snap on, snap off

Lordos, who is of Greek descent, helped coin WORMS, and chose the letter “O” to stand for “oligomeric,” which in Greek signifies “a few parts.”

“Our idea was that, with just a few parts, combined in different ways, you could mix and match and get all these different robots,” says AeroAstro undergraduate Brooke Bensche.

The system’s main parts include the appendage, or worm, which can be attached to a body, or chassis, via a “universal interface block” that snaps the two parts together through a twist-and-lock mechanism. The parts can be disconnected with a small tool that releases the block’s spring-loaded pins.

Appendages and bodies can also snap into accessories such as a “shoe,” which the team engineered in the shape of a wok, and a LiDAR system that can map the surroundings to help a robot navigate.

“In future iterations we hope to add more snap-on sensors and tools, such as winches, balance sensors, and drills,” says AeroAstro undergraduate Jacob Rodriguez.

The team developed software that can be tailored to coordinate multiple appendages. As a proof of concept, the team built a six-legged robot about the size of a go-cart. In the lab, they showed that once assembled, the robot’s independent limbs worked to walk over level ground. The team also showed that they could quickly assemble and disassemble the robot in the field, on a desert site in California.

In its first generation, each WORMS appendage measures about 1 meter long and weighs about 20 pounds. In the moon’s gravity, which is about one-sixth that of Earth’s, each limb would weigh about 3 pounds, which an astronaut could easily handle to build or disassemble a robot in the field. The team has planned out the specs for a larger generation with longer and slightly heavier appendages. These bigger parts could be snapped together to build “pack” bots, capable of transporting heavy payloads.

“There are many buzz words that are used to describe effective systems for future space exploration: modular, reconfigurable, adaptable, flexible, cross-cutting, et cetera,” says Kevin Kempton, an engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, who served as a judge for the 2022 BIG Idea Challenge. “The MIT WORMS concept incorporates all these qualities and more.”

This research was supported, in part, by NASA, MIT, the Massachusetts Space Grant, the National Science Foundation, and the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation.

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