Researchers hope fireflies will make it easier for robots to communicate

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) – University of Colorado researchers are studying synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains to determine if understanding how they communicate could aid in the development of robotic communication.

Fireflies “need to solve complex problems while communicating in large groups, which is what computers need to do,” Orit Peleg, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “So maybe there’s something interesting that we can learn about them and apply to artificial systems.”

Semi-autonomous robots communicating with flashes of infrared light could be used to locate victims after a natural disaster, for example.

Researchers who stayed at the park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border earlier this month to study fireflies at their peak included graduate student Owen Martin and postdoctoral researcher Raphael Sarfati. Their research combines computer science, physics, engineering and biology.

The coordination required for thousands of fireflies to flash together is not well understood. A group of fireflies will chain together. Other more distant fireflies will follow. The synchronization radiates like ripples on a pond.

Male fireflies hover and flash to signal females. The females rest on the ground and throw back lightning at the correct male species. Timing is thought to help this firefly species distinguish itself from other species with different flash patterns.

As part of the study, the Martin said he would catch several male fireflies and try to get them to synchronize their flashes with a flashing LED.

“We’re going to start flashing like a firefly next to a real firefly and see how they interact,” Martin said. “We’re trying to see if we can form a periodic signal in the fireflies.”

Meanwhile, Sarfati said he would record the flicker with 360-degree cameras to study how it spreads.

“I’m interested in trying not to interfere with the natural world as much as possible,” Sarfati said. “I like to see what happens in an undisturbed environment.”

Peleg said the blinking is like Morse code, and the signal is probably as close to computer language as any communication between living things.

“It’s really a goldmine because there’s so much we don’t know,” Peleg said.

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