Agility of bees could inspire drones that squeeze through tight spaces
Over many thousands of years, evolution has bestowed certain animals with some very clever capabilities, and robotics researchers are endlessly turning to these creatures as sources of inspiration. Of particular interest to scientists working on small, next-generation drones are flying insects such as bees, and a new understanding of the way these critters squeeze through tight spaces has one team from Australia's University of New South Wales (UNSW) imagining how flying robots could be made to do the same thing.
Over the past few years, we've seen a number of interesting advances in drone research that have used bees as a starting point. Harvard's RoboBee was the world's first insect-sized winged robot to demonstrate controlled flight back in 2013, but recently learnt how to dive underwater and even blast its way out again. We've also seen researchers look to bees to improve obstacle avoidance in drones, and enable drones to assist with pollination efforts by covering them in sticky gel.
The focus of the research from UNSW lies in the self-awareness of bumblebees as they move through the air. The team was interested in the way the insects are able to change their posture to fly through tight spaces, and do so in a way that demonstrates supreme awareness of their body shape and size.
“Previous research had indicated that complex processes, such as the perception of self-size, were cognitively driven and present only in animals with large brains," says Dr Sridhar Ravi, lead author of the research. "However, our research indicates that small insects, with an even smaller brain, can comprehend their body size and use that information while flying in a complex environment."
The researchers say this is the first time this kind of behavior has been observed in flying invertebrates. They made the discovery by studying bumblebees that had been trained to fly through a tunnel and through gaps of varying widths, including spaces much smaller than their wingspans.
Through what the team calls "lateral peering," the bees were found to scan the gap on approach and build a comprehensive map of it, before changing their body orientation to make it through the hole, rather than attack it head on. The researchers liken this to the way a human might rotate their shoulders to fit through a narrow doorway.
“Insects are fantastic models for robots because they have exceedingly small brains and yet they're able to perform overly complex tasks," says Ravi. "Over thousands of years nature has coded insects with some amazing attributes. Our challenge now is to see how we can take this and apply a similar coding to future robotic systems, enhancing their performance in the natural world."
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Source: University of New South Wales