Schmickl, who now heads the Artificial Life Laboratory at the University of Graz in Austria, was not wrong. Since then, studies in various parts of the world have found that insect populations are declining or changing. After working in the field of swarm robotics for several years, using nature to inspire robots, Schmickl decided to turn his work around and design robots to help nature, a concept he calls ecosystem hacking.
It’s focusing on bees. Bees and other pollinators face habitat loss, pesticide exposure and other challenges, and Schmickl believes that coming to their aid could help strengthen entire ecosystems. Some companies already offer augmented hives that monitor indoor conditions or even robotically care for bees. Now Schmickl and his colleagues want to go a step further and use the technology to manipulate insect behavior.
Talking to the swarm
Schmickl’s team is building prototype hives as part of a European Union-funded project called Hiveopolis. One of the hives in the group resembles a stylized tree trunk, similar to a hollow tree where bees might nest in the wild. In an effort to use sustainable materials, this beehive is made from 3D-printed clay and fungi grown on recycled coffee grounds, says Schmickl.
Prototype hives are equipped with sensors and cameras, as well as devices that can create vibrations inside the hive and adjust temperature or airflow. Ultimately, these tools could direct bees’ traffic patterns: Schmickl’s experiments have shown that vibration slows bees down, while moving air encourages them to move.
Hiveopolis contributor Tim Landgraf, a professor of artificial and collective intelligence at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany, is working on another kind of tool for these hives: a robotic dancing bee.
When true bees return from foraging, they perform a distinctive “waddle dance” that communicates the location of the food. Other bees join in the forager dances, and when enough bees are doing the same dance, they will fly off to find the food. “It’s kind of an opinion poll process,” Schmickl says.
In previous research, Landgraf built a robot that could perform a dance of movement so convincing that other bees followed and, at least sometimes, flew in the direction the robot suggested. Now he is preparing to test an improved version of the waggle robot and find out if it can guide the bees to a food source. The robot doesn’t look much like a bee to a human eye. Its body is simply a small, flexible tube with a “wing” that flies. But it is connected to a motor outside the hive that can steer it and move it around the hive dance floor.