Bees’ ‘waggle dance’ inspires robot communication in disaster zones

Image credit: Foto 33477357 © Nikolay Petkov |

Scientists have devised a simple system of robot-robot communication that does not rely on digital networks, inspired by the 'waggle dance' that honeybees perform to alert others to the location of nearby flowers.

A team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Science and the University of Maryland has taken inspiration from honeycomb bees to devise a system of robot communication that can be used in places where the network coverage is absent or unreliable, such as disaster zones or outer space.

Imitating the "wiggle dance" that bees use to tell their sisters about the location of nectar-rich flowers, the robots are able to trace a shape on the floor. The shape's orientation and the time it takes to trace tell the second robot the required direction and distance of travel to deliver a package.

The scientists published their findings in a study in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, describing how the team designed a visual communication system for robots with on-board cameras, using algorithms that allow the robots to interpret what they see and also help humans communicate with them using gestures. 

The system was tested using a simple task, in which a robot had to move a package from a warehouse. In the experiment, a human had to communicate with a "messenger robot”, which supervised and instructed a "handling robot" as to where to send the package. 

The paper described how the messenger robots were able to recognise human gestures, such as the raising of a hand, and accurately convey the information to the tracking robots by drawing a specific shape on the ground. 

The robots interpreted the gestures correctly 90 per cent and 93.3 per cent of the time, respectively, per the scientists' reports. 

"This technique could be useful in places where communication network coverage is insufficient and intermittent, such as robot search-and-rescue operations in disaster zones or in robots that undertake spacewalks," said Prof Abhra Roy Chowdhury, a senior author on the study.

Due to the fact that the method depends on robot vision through a simple camera, it is both scalable and compatible with robots of various sizes and configurations, the scientist said, and therefore the system could be used in a large number of scenarios where there are no digital networks. 

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