Robots Allow Fish And Bees To Communicate With Each Other For The First Time

The experimental setup. Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

Animal communication is fascinating and often way more complex than people realize. Humans are able to communicate with other species with some success but now, researchers have allowed two very different creatures to “talk” to each other. Using robots.

As reported in Science Robotics, the team managed to get a group of bees located in Austria to telecommunicate with a group of fish living in Switzerland. Each group of animals had a robotic counterpart of themselves that would serve as a communication relay, connecting the two groups and, in turn, influencing their behavior.

The robots in each group emitted signals specific to that species. The bee robots vibrated, changed temperature, and produced air movements. The fish robot could change its color, shape, and how it moved. Each robot recorded the signals produced by its assigned species, transmitted it to the other robot, and then translated the incoming message into something its species could understand.

"We created an unprecedented bridge between the two animal communities, enabling them to exchange some of their dynamics," lead author Frank Bonnet, from the Biorobotics laboratory (BioRob) at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, said in a statement. "The species even started adopting some of each other's characteristics. The bees became a little more restless and less likely to swarm together than usual, and the fish started to group together more than they usually would."

Despite being 700 kilometers (435 miles) apart and experiencing the world differently, the two species communicated. At first, their interactions and feedback were chaotic but they eventually found common ground. The researchers report that after 25 minutes the two animal groups had synchronized. The fish began swimming around their tank in a counterclockwise direction, while the bees swarmed around one of their robotic terminals.

"The robots acted as if they were negotiators and interpreters in an international conference," explained Francesco Mondada, a professor at BioRob. "Through the various information exchanges, the two groups of animals gradually came to a shared decision." 

This research has multiple applications. The new approach could help robotics engineers capture, translate, and understand biological signals. Meanwhile, biologists could use it to better understand animal behavior and interactions within ecosystems. In the future, similar approaches could also aid conservation efforts by encouraging animals to stay in safe locations or employing them to monitor the environment.

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