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Bumblebees Are Teaching Smart Cars How To Drive

New research is using the flight of the bumblebee to figure out how to program smart cars.

The age of the smart car is upon us, and it's riding in on the backs of bumblebees.

A newly-awarded research grant from the National Science Foundation is devoting $300,000 to a project to study the ways that bumblebees navigate, and to apply that information to help cars keep safe for people. The project, headed by researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, is examining the feasibility of "bumblebee-based connected vehicles."


First off, the terminology: a "connected vehicle" is a car that, by using Wi-Fi, RF television channels, or some other kind of channel, can "talk" to other cars around it. The car can exchange information about its own velocity, direction and intentions, and receive the same information back from other cars. The technology, which has been receiving lots of attention with the rise of self-driving cars, has been touted as a way to greatly increase safety for both drivers and pedestrians.

Next: bumblebee-based: the idea is that bumblebees, unlike honeybees or ants, do not have a so-called "hive mind." Bumblebees, it turns out, are the perfect ideal for connected vehicles — they are social, exchanging information with one another, but then they act on that information independently, with their own goals.

"Evolution has primed these types of insects to survive in real world," Alexander Wyglinski, PhD, the project's lead researcher, told Motherboard. "We're just borrowing what mother nature has polished."

Luckily for Wyglinski, an electrical engineer, there was a biologist at his university, Robert Gegear, who was also interested in bumblebee behavior. The two created a partnership, wherein Gegear would fill his labs (enclosed in a carefully sealed room) with bumblebees and study the way they navigated to forage for nectar, and Wyglinski would use that data to inform his models for bumblebee-based connected vehicles.


Why bumblebees, and not a complex and carefully-created computer model? As it turns out, Wyglinski explained, real life is actually a lot more like the flight of a bumblebee than like a model.

"The issue with using mathematical equations is that mathematical optimizations make a lot of assumptions," he said. "They are optimal only under ideal circumstances. But a bumblebee works in the real world."

Wyglinski foresees that the project will help him implement a connected vehicle network based on the bumblebee data and test it out, before it hits the road. He expects that, with demands from companies like Tesla, Uber and Google, and with interest from insurance companies wanting better safety features, cars will be outfitted with connected vehicle systems within five years.

"In today's society, you need to think outside box, you need to have interdisciplinary solutions," he said.

"It sounds cockamamie, but it really is unique and transformatory."