Fish and bees in different countries now on speaking terms thanks to robots

21 Mar 2019

Image: © ihorhvozdetskiy/

Fish and bees couldn’t be more different from one another but, thanks to robots, they are now able to work together for shared goals.

The more imaginative among us might dream of a universal translator-like device that would allow humans to speak with animals, but in the real world a new robot breakthrough is able to help animals communicate with each other like never before.

Announcing the news, engineers from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and four other European universities revealed that they have been able to get two extremely different species based in two different countries to interact with each other and reach a shared decision, with the help of robots.

Detailing its findings in Science Robotics, the team said bees in Austria and fish in Switzerland were able to transmit signals back and forth to each other through a number of robots until they eventually coordinated their decisions.

The robots are not big, clunky machines, but rather small designs that have been made to blend into groups of animals and influence their behaviours. Recently, they were able to infiltrate a school of fish in a circular aquarium and get them to swim in a given direction.

For this latest study, the team of engineers took things a little further by connecting the fish remotely with a colony of bees living on a platform of robot terminals on each side, which they naturally tend to swarm around.

The robots released into each group emitted signals specific to that species; the machine in the school of fish emitted visual signals such as different shapes and colours, as well as behavioural signals such as vibrations or tail movements, while the bee robot emitted signals through vibrations and air movements.

This resulted in the fish starting to swim in a given direction, while the bees began to swarm around just one of the terminals.

An interspecies conference

“The robots acted as if they were negotiators and interpreters in an international conference,” said Francesco Mondada of EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob). “Through the various information exchanges, the two groups of animals gradually came to a shared decision.”

The results showed that despite being 700km apart, the two species were ‘talking’ with one another after an initial period of chaos, followed by a certain amount of coordination. After 25 minutes the two species synchronised, with the fish swimming anticlockwise while the bees stayed at one terminal.

Frank Bonnet of BioRob added: “The species even started adopting some of each other’s characteristics. The bees became a little more restless and less likely to swarm together than usual, and the fish started to group together more than they usually would.”

The team hopes that these findings could allow robotic engineers to develop machines that could capture and translate biological signals, as well as better understanding animal behaviour.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic