Honey bees are fascinating creatures. They live harmoniously in large communities, divided into different castes, with some of the worker bees heading out on daily expeditions to gather nectar and pollen from flowers. Already, a study has suggested that the efficient method in which bees visit those flowers could inspire the improvement of human endeavors such as the building of faster computer networks. Now, scientists from the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex hope to build a computer model of the honey bee’s brain, with the ultimate hope of using it to control tiny autonomous flying robots.

The project is called Green Brain – a tip of the hat to IBM’s Blue Brain Project, the aim of which is to create a computer model of the human brain. The Green Brain team, however, aren’t actually trying to recreate all of a bee’s mental processes. Instead, they’re focusing on the systems that control its vision and sense of smell.

Also, unlike the Blue Brain scientists, they’re not using supercomputers to create their model. In order to get the performance they’ll need out of desktop PCs, they are using high-performance GPU (graphics processing unit) accelerators. Donated by the NVIDIA Corporation, these GPUs are typically used to rapidly generate 3D graphics on home computers and gaming systems. For the Green Brain project, they will instead be used to quickly perform complex calculations.

So, why would anyone want a bee-brained flying robot? Well, in the same way that honey bees can sniff out and visually identify flowers, it is hoped that the autonomous robots could be used to trace odors or gases to their sources. Not only could this have applications in fields such as environmental monitoring, but it could also prove useful for things like search-and-rescue operations.

The robots might also find use in the pollination of crops. Although real bees currently provide this service, that could change as worldwide bee populations continue to plummet. On that note, the scientists also hope that by creating the model, they will be better able to understand the behavior of bees. By doing so, they may then gain some insight into why honey bee populations are falling, and perhaps be able to do something about it.

Once it’s time to actually build the bee-bots, a team of scientists at Germany’s Bielefeld University may be able to help – they’ve been working on creating an artificial bee’s eye, specifically for use in micro air vehicles.