Researchers hope fireflies can help develop robot communication

Researchers from the University of Colorado are studying synchronous fireflies from the Great Smoky Mountains in hopes of helping develop robot communication.

The research will particularly focus on the synchronization and coordination that is established between thousands of fireflies that allows them to flash together. The team of researchers includes postdoctoral researcher Raphael Sarfati and graduate student Owen Martin from the University of Colorado Boulder.

The synchronization process radiates similarly to a ripple or wave effect where one group of fireflies will light up, and then another group far away will respond by flashing. Male fireflies will first hover in the air and flash a signal to females on the ground. The females will then return flashes to the correct species of male fireflies. This synchronization process is believed to help fireflies identify themselves from other species that have different flash patterns.

In this study, Martin will catch male fireflies and use a flashing LED in an attempt to synchronize their flashes. This will be done in hopes of mimicking the interaction between male and female fireflies. Martin said, “we’re going to start flashing like a firefly next to a real firefly and see how they interact”. “We’re trying to see if we can train a periodic signal in the fireflies,” On the other hand, Sarfati would record the flashing signals using 360-degree cameras to better understand how the signal spreads and propagates. The researchers are also interested in not interfering with the natural environment as much as possible throughout this study.

The flashing from fireflies is said to be similar to Morse Code and is probably the form of natural communication closest to computer language. “They need to solve complex problems while communicating in large groups, which is something computers need to do,” stated Orit Peleg, a computer scientist from the University of Colorado at Boulder. “So maybe there’s something interesting we can learn about them and apply to man-made systems,”

Semi-autonomous robots can communicate using flashes of infrared light that could help locate victims of natural disasters or map large areas in real-time. The feasibility of developing robot communication using fireflies is still under study, however, the researchers hope to learn more by studying firefly behavior in the Great Smoky Mountains. The coordination needed for thousands of fireflies to flash together isn’t well understood yet. According to Peleg, “it really is a gold mine because there’s so much we don’t know.”

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