Studies of bees can enable drones that “see”

Synchrotron radiation helps vision researcher Emily Baird create three-dimensional images of how insects see the world. In the future, this could lead to sighted drones that navigate through the air like insects, without being remote controlled from the ground.

Emily Baird

“I enjoy research more than anything, and the most fun part is that I am forced to be creative and make constant progress, says Emily Baird, involved in the world leading Lund Vision Group at the Department of Biology. Photo: Gunnar Menander

The only thing that limits what self-flying drones could accomplish is our imagination: independently being able to distribute medicine to a remote farm, or transport equipment to an inaccessible scene of an accident are only two examples. However, despite her lifelong fascination with robotics, this type of drone is merely a side issue for Emily Baird, senior lecturer and one of the researchers involved in the world leading Lund Vision Group at the Department of Biology at Lund University.

If sighted drones had been the goal when starting her current project about rainforest bees and their eye-sight, she believes that it would have involved greater risks of failure and would have been less successful. She explains that what drives her in her research is rather the joy she feels in her work and the desire to understand something that nobody has understood so far. When the results later arrive they will usually lead to useful and beneficial things.

“How come a bee is capable of navigating through a dense rainforest mile after mile, when I get lost if I stray five metres away from the path? These are the things that fascinate me. Although research could perhaps contribute to the development of sighted drones which navigate on their own, this is not my main purpose”, she says and continues:

“I enjoy research more than anything, and the most fun part is that I am forced to be creative and make constant progress; otherwise, you cannot survive as a researcher as the competition for grants is so fierce. If you are not really interested in what you do and think the work is great, it simply would not work.”

Rainforest bees are currently what takes up Emily Baird’s time, specifically, the bees’ ability to navigate in the forest. “You can’t have much more fun than that – not if your entire childhood was characterised by nature and animals, and all of your waking hours are occupied by the desire to create new knowledge about eyes and vision”, she says.

When LUM meets her, she has just returned from a visit to the rainforests in Brazil.

Orkidebi LITEN

Orchidee Bee. Photo: Emily Baird

“The bees there fascinate me. Despite their tiny brains and low resolution eyes, they manage to navigate incredibly well through the dense vegetation. The question that interests me the most is really how the brain has created this behaviour”, she says.

The answer lies partly in the difference between the brain of a human being and that of a bee. While the human brain absorbs much more information than they are aware of, bees and other insects only release certain pieces of information to the brain. The result is that insects can see patterns but not details. The patterns they see help them to avoid crashing, and maintain the correct speed.

“Their strategy is super simple. They measure their speed and their height above the ground by registering how quickly the pattern they see is coming towards them and moving across their eyes. This way, they have surrounding objects come at them at a constant speed when flying. If they are in a complex environment with dense vegetation, they will automatically fly slower than if they are flying in open terrain where objects are not as close”, she says, and continues:

“I have had many discussions with engineers who want to build lightweight, self-flying robots. So far, no one has succeeded in doing what the bees do.”

There are still many unanswered questions regarding the eye-sight of bees, for instance, what the bees see and how they perceive the world.

Emily Baird is hoping to find answers to these questions by using synchrotron radiation to create a three-dimensional image of what the bees actually see. So far, she has been working at a facility in Switzerland and one in the UK. MAX IV is not an option for her until it has been equipped with an experimental station – a so-called beamline – adapted to precisely this type of research, which might take another 10 years.

“But obviously I want to use MAX IV – it will be like working inside a spaceship with all the flashing lights and things that blip – it will be amazing!”, she concludes.

Text: Jan Olsson


Together with her colleagues Marie Dacke and Eric Warrant a few years ago, Emily Baird received the Ig Nobel Prize for the discovery of dung beetles’ ability to orient themselves in the world with the help of the light from the Milky Way. Only research that makes people laugh and then think is eligible for this award.

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