Inspired by honey bees, scientists teach robots to communicate with ‘wiggle dance’

An international team of researchers has taken inspiration from honey bees to teach robots to understand human gestures and convey them with their own ‘wobble dance’.

Honey bees communicate the location of flower spots using an elaborate dance. (Illustrative image) (Image credit: Pixabay)

Taking inspiration from honeybees, an international team of researchers has developed gesture identification that will allow robots to communicate with each other by “dancing” with a coordinated set of gestures to convey information. The research is published in the journal Frontiers.

In nature, after a honey bee finds a patch of flowers where it can extract nectar, it returns to the hive to warn other bees. Once there, it performs a “wobble dance” to tell other bees the location of flower patches. Other bees interpret the movements and duration of the dance to know where the flower patch is relative to the hive. Researchers used a similar technique to “teach” two robots to communicate through dance.

“A visual communication system for robots with built-in cameras has been developed using algorithms that allow robots to interpret what they see. Humans and robots communicate using gestures, such as a raised hand with a clenched fist,” Abhra Roy Chowdhury, senior author of the paper, told in an email. Choudhury is head of the Robotics Innovation Lab at the Center for Product Design and Manufacturing at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru.

Chowdhury and his co-author Kaustub Joshi, a doctoral student and research assistant at the University of Maryland, developed a proof-of-concept for this communication system using two robots that served as proxies for package-handling robots.

First, a human operator uses hand gestures, such as a raised or clenched fist, to transmit a coded message that contains the location of a “package.” A robot detected these gestures and decoded the message to find out the location of the package based on a map of the environment that was encoded into it. He was then able to communicate the same information to a second robot through a dance. The robots were able to successfully interpret and transmit the information 93.33% of the time during the experiments.

Robots usually communicate with each other through various digital networks, including wireless communication. But according to Choudhury, there may be situations where network communications aren’t available but robotic labor is needed, such as in disaster zones or during spacewalks. Because the robots in the study used simple cameras to identify gestures, the technology has potential for scalability.

Chowdhury told that he and Joshi are now working on making the technology more accurate and more robust so that it can be used to convey more complex messages, tasks and instructions.

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