Opteran: Honeybee brains inspiring autonomous machines

Thinking big isn’t always the right answer when it comes to AI. In fact, thinking as small as a honeybee brain can bring about revolutionary change, as Professor James Marshall and Dr Alex Cope discovered. 

Based on eight years of research into insect brains by Sheffield University’s Professor Marshall and Dr Cope, Opteran was then launched in 2020 as a spin-out from the university’s Department of Computer Science. Using Natural Intelligence, the team are developing lightweight, low-cost silicon ‘brains’ that enable robots and autonomous vehicles to see, sense, navigate, and make decisions. 

AI is generally based on the human brain, which has somewhere in the region of 86 billion neurons and a volume of 1,274 cubic centimeters. The honeybee, on the other hand, has around one million neurons, is roughly the size of a pinhead – and is still capable of complex decision making. It’s this level of sophistication Opteran hope to bring to the industry, transport, and consumer sectors, as automated machines become part of our lives. 

Commenting on this insight, Professor Marshall said that his research was originally sparked by hearing about large-scale projects aiming to build a complete computer simulation of the human brain. “My initial response to that was, ‘if you’re going to start building a model of any brain on the planet, why on earth would you start with the most complicated one?’”


After securing £2.1 million funding within its first year, Opteran has gone on to successfully trial an AI-controlled sub-250g drone, launch a commercial Opteran Partnership Programme, develop an Opteran Development Kit (ODK), and feature on BBC’s Click. Described as having the potential to be the world leader in this area of expertise, we’re proud to say that it all started it Sheffield. 

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