The Future Of Self-Driving Cars May Depend On Bees

Self-driving cars are the holy grail of the automotive industry. But billions in funding and enormous research projects have yet to deliver. Scientists hope to turn things around with the help of…Bees.

Bee Brains

The brain of a honeybee is apparently the size of a pin head. Despite this, they’re able to travel for five miles and still navigate themselves home. Their abilities have caught the eyes of scientists looking to speed-up the development of self-driving cars. How? By mimicking the readings of bee brains and creating an algorithm that can be installed onto a microchip. This will, it’s hoped, be able to advance the development of sophisticated drones and self-driving cars.

Scientists are strapping ‘radar masks’ (they look like little antennas) to the bees to map their neural activity. They’re then hooking them up to virtual reality machines, depicting the things a bee might expect to see whilst on the move. They then monitor how the bee behaves and how their brains respond to certain situations. As the research progresses, the bees will eventually have electrodes inserted into the brains; offering further insights.

‘Pretty Impressive’ 

The overall aim of the research is to effectively reverse-engineer the brains of bees; unlocking their incredible ability for navigation, all whilst having a small amount of brain power.

Professor James Marshall, of the University of Sheffield, is leading the project. He’s emphasised how impressive our honey-mad friends are. He said, “it is pretty impressive that a bee can fly over five miles, then remember its way home, with a brain the size of a pinhead. They do this with only a million brain cells, when humans have around 100 billion brain cells”. He added, “so it makes sense to me that we should try and mimic a bee brain in drones and driverless cars. It is just more practical than trying to make these machines work like human brains”.

So far, the scientists have mapped around a quarter of the pinhead-sized brains. It’s a challenging process, as Dr Joe Woodgate of Queen Mary University of London has discovered. She said, “before we can track a bee with radar, we need to attach a small electronic tag to her back, which is easier said than done. They’re very good at escaping from us and when we do succeed, we’re left holding an angry bee which isn’t always the safest place to be”.

Customers Are Rolling In 

The research is still in its early stages, but the scientists are hopeful for its future applications; especially in terms of drone technology. Applications concerning self-driving cars will take longer, perhaps a number of years. But given that the CEO of Ford recently said it had vastly overestimated the arrival of autonomous driving, there may be no rush.

So far, the research has received £1.5 million in early ‘seed’ funding and has received an additional £4.8 million grant from the UK Research Council. The team has also said it has an “early potential” customer from the aviation industry. Overall, then, things are looking promising. Should the project be successful, we’ll have a tried-and-tested navigation system that doesn’t require (in theory) very much processing power at all; that’s a lot of gains for little expense. Let’s just hope it’s worth all of the bee stings…

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