In the future, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) won’t need human input, radar, or even GPS satellite navigation. They’ll be able to visually coordinate their flight and navigation just like birds and flying insects do.
This future is being realized by a research group at the University of Queensland, Australia, who are in the process of uncovering flying techniques that budgerigars and bees share and applying their findings to UAV control programmes. Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, who leads the research, explains that researchers are looking at how small airborne creatures such as bees and birds use their vision to avoid collisions with obstacles, fly safely through narrow passages, control their height above the ground and more. Researchers use these biologically-inspired principles to design innovative vision systems and algorithms for the guidance of UAVs.
Bird and insect brains differ significantly in terms of size and architecture, but the visual processing in both animals is very effective at guiding their flight. Bees’ brains for instance weigh a tenth of a milligram and possess far less neurons than human brains, yet they’re able to navigate precisely to food sources that are over 10 km away from their hive, according to Professor Srinivasan. Similarly, birds can perform incredible aerobatics and navigational feats. Professor Srinivasan explained that researchers are hoping to emulate these simple and elegant strategies, which have been honed by thousands of years of evolution.
The team chose to study bees and budgies specifically because both are easy animals to study. Professor Srinivasan explained that both species are clever, can be easily trained, and own sophisticated visual systems that are distinct to those of humans. He mentioned that the study of these animals’ behaviour could also reveal some of the basic principles of visual guidance in a number of other organisms, including humans.
The results of this research, done through observation using high-speed cameras, should lead to drastically improved UAV guidance systems. According to Professor Srinivasan, the biologically-inspired principles uncovered will foster a new generation of fully autonomous UAVs that do not rely on external help such as GPS or radar. These UAVs could be incredibly useful for applications like surveillance, rescue operations, defence, and planetary exploration.
Their research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.