How synchronized fireflies could inspire robot swarms

Scientists figured out how synchronized fireflies coordinate their light show. How they do it might give insight into swarm robotics.

Despite their simple brains, synchronized fireflies have something to teach us about artificial intelligence. A recent discovery on the insect’s amazing light shows could help researchers acquire fresh insight into swarm robotics.

Every year, in late May and early June, people from all over the world visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to watch an extraordinary phenomenon, where thousands of male fireflies flicker their abdomens in unison. This coordinated mating display has long been a mystery to scientists. 

“Is it something hard-wired in fireflies that gets them to sync?” University of Colorado Boulder physicist Raphaël Sarfati said, reports Science Alert. “Or is it a little more contextual, maybe based on your environment?”

It turns out, the synchronized fireflies’ light displays are even more subtle than scientists realized, and it has to do with the insect’s three-dimensional positioning.

To understand how the light show works, the team set up 360 cameras in a wooded area of the national park. They mapped the locations of the flashing insects, while introducing a few new fireflies at a time.

They found that fireflies behave differently when they are alone versus in groups. In turns out, synchronized fireflies “watch” what their neighbors are doing, instead of blinking according to any inherent rhythm. Then they change their blinking pattern to match those around them.

The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, describes how to three-dimensionally replicate the synchronized fireflies’ flashing and flight patterns —  indicating how insects with very simple brains can perform complex, simultaneous tasks. Their work could guide the development of new forms of communication and teamwork in swarm robotics technology. In swarm robotics, multiple robots are interacting with each other and responding to their environment — with a desired collection action.

“If we learn the connection between the microscopic rules that govern the individual firefly and the resulting global behavior of a swarm of fireflies, we can use that insight to design behaviors for robot swarms that require some form of synchronization to carry out a task,” Anders Christensen, a professor of bio-inspired robotics at the University of Southern Denmark, told Smithsonian Magazine.

Christensen does not work with Sarfati but said Sarfati’s work understanding synchronized fireflies could contribute insight to communication and robustness, two principles of self-organization that drive swarm robotics.

We can use that insight to design behaviors for robot swarms that require some form of synchronization to carry out a task.

Anders Christensen

Like fireflies, swarm robots need to be able to respond to each other. Even more challenging, synchronized behavior needs to continue when one or a few robots break down. Cracking this problem would allow bio-inspired robots to perform complicated tasks just by relying on each other for cues, rather than being centrally controlled.

There are over 2,000 species of fireflies — which aren’t actually flies. In some parts of the country, they are called lightning bugs. But, they aren’t true bugs either. They are nocturnal beetles. Unfortunately, many fireflies are facing extinction because of habitat loss, light pollution, and pesticides. Due to coronavirus, the National Park Service canceled the “light show” event at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which normally would attract up to 1,000 people.

Despite disappointment among firefly tourists, canceling the event might give the insects a much-needed break. Light pollution — which is closely associated with lots of people — can make it difficult for fireflies to attract mates simply because too much light makes it hard for females to pick up on male signals.

But, in the meantime, firefly enthusiasts can help the cause by participating in Firefly Watch, a citizen science effort to help scientists map fireflies and understand population change.

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