Eric Warrant, professor of functional zoology at Lund University in Sweden, is spending time in the Panamanian jungle trying to unlock the secrets of nocturnal bees. To Warrant, these bee brains are “incredibly beautiful”: They can fly intricate patterns, are extremely well-controlled and can navigate obstacle fields without crashing, all with a nervous system the size of a grain of rice. And nocturnal bees can see at night as well as humans — with our much larger brains and eyes — can see in broad daylight. It’s a biological problem, and Warrant wants to figure out how they solved it.
Turns out it’s about the software, not the hardware. Your common backyard honeybee has a compound eye that uses polarized light and cues in the sky to judge direction, while at the same time using optic flow to judge distance and velocity from the ground passing below — like simultaneously being both above- and below-deck on a glass-bottom boat. Nocturnal bees have this same type of eye, but also have special neural circuitry that allows them to process this same visual information in the thick pitch of a rainforest night. (In fact, it’s so dark that the researchers can’t see the very thing they’re studying; they need to use IR illumination and night vision goggles.) Warrant believes this circuitry could have applications for digital imagery, for creating new electronic circuits for camera sensors, and for developing supersensitive optic flow for an autopilot. This means drones could fly by sight, without depending on GPS.
The U.S. Air Force is interested in Warrant’s research, and has funded it in part, and there are obvious applications for UAV technology. In fact, Warrant thinks engineers might find insects to be the perfect vehicle: low-energy systems, efficient, robust, and adaptable. The more we learn about them, he says, the more they astonish him.