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Engineers hope to upload bees' brains into robots

Pollination by a honey bee
Wikipedia/Louise Docker

Sometimes real science sounds more like science fiction. Just the phrase "bionic bees" sounds like something out of an old paperback.

But that's the goal of a new project from the University of Sheffield and the University of Sussex. Engineers are planning on scanning the brains of bees and uploading them into flying robots, with the hope that the machines will fly and act like the real thing.

The goal of the project is to create the first robots able to act on instinct. Researchers hope to implant a honey bee's sense of smell and sight into the flying machines, allowing the robot to act as autonomously as an insect rather than relying on pre-programmed instructions.

Possible applications for the bionic bee include search and rescue missions such as a collapsed mine, detecting chemical or gas leaks and even pollinating plants just like a real bee.

Dr. James Marshall, the head of the $1.61 million study, wrote in a press release: "The development of an artificial brain is one of the greatest challenges in Artificial Intelligence. So far, researchers have typically studied brains such as those of rats, monkeys, and humans, but actually 'simpler' organism such as social insects have surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities."

Researchers anticipate that developing a model for scanning and uploading an animal's brain will offer insight into how a brain's cognitive systems work, potentially offering advances in understanding animal and human cognition.

"Not only will this pave the way for many future advances in autonomous flying robots," wrote Dr. Thomas Nowotny, the leader of the Sussex team, "but we also believe the computer modeling techniques we will be using will be widely useful to other brain modeling and computational neuroscience projects."

The project - which researchers call "Green Brain" - is funded by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with technical help from IBM and hardware donated by NVIDIA Corporation. Scientists hope to have a bionic bee in the air by 2015.