2006 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2006

Mandyam full sizeMandyam Veerambudi Srinivasan

An automatic landing system for an aircraft is expensive and complex. And it is just one of many systems that would be required to make a truly robotic aircraft.

But a bee can take off, find targets, fly through tunnels, navigate home, and land without any of that complexity. It uses a minute brain of about a million nerve cells, which is the size of a sesame seed and weighs just a tenth of a milligram.

Mandyam Srinivasan – known to all as Srini – has dedicated his research career to understanding just how bees work.

What started 23 years ago as basic research with no apparent application, is now followed closely by robotics experts around the world, and routinely receives NASA and US military grants.

Mandyam Veerambudi Srinivasan FAA FRS receives the 2006 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for a remarkable and unique research career that has revealed the working of the insect mind, and helped redefine robotics research.

Srini first gained a Masters in Electrical Engineering in his home town of Bangalore in India before turning his attention to exploring the links between human vision and engineering.

After a PhD at Yale University, and work at the Australian National University and the University of Zurich, Srini returned to ANU in 1985 to join a major project on an exploration into how insects perceive the three-dimensional world and manoeuvre in it.

It was then that he started a series of elegant experiments with bees that combine biology and engineering, and have transformed our understanding of the insect world. He has found that:

1)      Bees fly through the middle of a tunnel by balancing the speeds of the images in the two eyes. Four robotics laboratories have used these results to construct robots that navigate through corridors.

2)      Bees regulate their flight speed by matching the speed of the images in each eye. They fly fast in open terrain and slow down to a safer speed in densely cluttered terrain.

3)      Honeybees measure distance flown in terms of the extent to which the image of the environment moves in the eye. Thus, bees possess a visually-driven “odometer”.

4)      Bees land smoothly by ensuring that their view of the surface stays at a constant speed. As the surface gets closer it appears to be moving faster, so the bee slows down. The result – a perfect landing – and a landing technique that Srini is now trialling using model aircraft.

Srini’s findings are informing robotics research around the world. His team’s projects include:

  • a robot that can steer through cluttered environments, supported by Fujitsu;
  • a camera that can give panoramic, insect-like vision to robots and surveillance cameras;
  • an autonomous navigation system for helicopters, with help from the US Defence Advanced Projects Agency; and
  • a design for ‘micro flyers’ for NASA. A mother craft would land on Mars and release several small, relatively inexpensive, autonomous micro flyers to survey the surrounding terrain.

One of his current projects looks at angry bees. When their hive is threatened, bees rush out and immediately attack any moving object in range. The US Air Force is interested in this capability.

What of the future? “Today we are trying to create small conventional aircraft with the brains of a bee. The future challenge is to bring in the engineering of a bee – micro flyers that can do what bees do,” says Srini.

But Srini is most excited about the potential to learn about emotion and cognition from bees.

“I’ve seen bees show frustration, anger, even joy,” he says. “I’m planning a new series of experiments that will determine if they really can experience emotion. If so, bees could transform our view of emotion and cognition across the animal kingdom.”

Autobiographical details


1994           D.Sc. in Neuroethology, Australian National University.

1977           Ph.D. (Engineering and Applied Science), Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

1973           M.Phil. in Engineering and Applied Science, Yale University, New Haven Connecticut, USA

1970           Masters’ degree in Applied Electronics & Servomechanisms (High Distinction), Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India

1968           Bachelors’ degree in Electrical Engineering (First Class), Bangalore University, India

Current positions

Inaugural Federation Fellow, Australian Research Council

ANU Distinguished Professor, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University

Director, Centre for Visual Science, Australian National University

Previous Appointments

1992-93      Senior Fellow, Visual Sciences, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University

1985-91      Fellow, Visual Sciences, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University

1982-85      Assistant Professor of Biophysics, Department of Neurobiology, University of Zürich, Switzerland.

1978-82      Research Fellow, Departments of Neurobiology and Applied Mathematics, Australian National University

1977-78      Research Scientist, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

Research interests

Principles of visual processing in simple natural systems, and their application to machine vision and robotics.

Awards and Distinctions

2006           2006 Royal Society of New Zealand Distinguished Visitor

2003           Australian Centenary Medal

2002           Doctor honoris causa (Dr.h.c.), University of Zürich

2001           Election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of London (FRS)

2001           Inaugural Australian Federation Fellowship award

2001           Australasian Science Prize

1996-97      Daimler-Benz Fellow (Wissenschaftskolleg), Institute of Advanced Studies, Berlin.

1995           Election to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science (FAA).

1973           Marshall, M.Phil. Degree Ceremony, Yale University.

1970           Khambatti Memorial Award for top graduate student in Electrical Engineering,

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

1967           First rank (out of 500 students), Fourth Year Electrical Engineering, Bangalore University


161 full-length research publications, including 15 in journals such as Nature and Science, 35 reviews, 1 edited book, 2 international patents.


2001-05           $5.0 million from the ARC, and Australian and overseas defence research organisations.

Major lectures

2001-05           35 invited keynote, plenary, opening, and named lectures at international and national conferences. Address to the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, 5 December 2002. 2006 Royal Society of New Zealand Distinguished Visitor