For thousands of years, evolution has given certain animals a very clever ability, and robotics researchers have relentlessly turned to these creatures as a source of inspiration. What’s interesting for scientists working on the next generation of small drones is flying insects like bees, and a new understanding of how these creatures enter through a narrow space makes a team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Australia imagine how flying robots could be made to do the same.
Over the past few years, we have seen a number of exciting advances in drone research that use bees as a starting point. RoboBee from Harvard was the world’s first insect-sized winged robot to demonstrate controlled flight in 2013, but recently learned how to dive underwater and even blow its way out again. We’ve also seen researchers look for bees to increase obstacle avoidance in drones, and allow drones to aid pollination efforts by covering them with sticky gel.
The focus of UNSW’s research lies in the self-awareness of bees when moving in the air. The team was interested in the way insects changed their posture to fly through tight spaces, and did so in a way that showed the highest awareness of their shape and body size.
“Previous research has shown that complex processes, such as perception of self-size, are cognitively driven and exist only in animals with large brains,” said Dr Sridhar Ravi, lead author of the study. “However, our research shows that small insects, with smaller brains, can understand their body size and use that information while flying in complex environments.”
Researchers say this is the first time this kind of behavior has been observed in flying invertebrates. They made the discovery by studying bees that had been trained to fly through tunnels and through gaps of varying widths, including spaces much smaller than their wingspan.
Through what the team called “lateral reconnaissance,” bees were found to scan for gaps as they approached and build comprehensive maps, before changing their body orientation to penetrate holes, rather than attacking them directly. The researchers liken this to the way humans twist shoulders to fit through narrow doors.
“Insects are a fantastic model for robots because they have very small brains but they are capable of overly complicated tasks,” Ravi said. “For thousands of years, nature has coded insects with some amazing attributes. Our challenge now is to see how we can take this and apply similar coding to future robotic systems, improving their performance in the real world. ”