Bug buzz

4 ways insects are inspiring the future of robotics

When it comes to flying and vision, pests still do it best.

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Robots may seem like futuristic, all-powerful technology, but in reality they still need a lot of help. Especially when it comes to perfecting simple skills, like sight.

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Roboticists often turn to insects for inspiration. Studying how flies, moths, and locusts react to stimuli can help teach robots to do the same.

Science Robotics

Insects and the flying cage: Scientists designed a smart, acrobatic cage to track flies as they dodge swats. This "lab-on-cables" can predict the motion of the fly and swoop to follow as it flies across a room. The researchers say it's accurate up to 1 cm.

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"Understanding how miniaturized insect brains control sensory processing and flight behavior could serve as a source of inspiration for future developments in robotics, e.g., micro- aerial vehicles mimicking flapping flight at the insect scale," the study authors explain.

Bug backpacks: The scientists behind this study wanted to find a way to shrink powerful vision capability down to the size of a beetle. To do this, they designed tiny Go Pro-like backpacks and put them on the backs of beetles that they set free in a university parking lot.

Insects in VR: These lucky insects had an entire virtual reality environment created just for them. The researchers' goal here was to mimic what it would be like for them to fly freely and to watch how they reacted and approached different objects in the environment, like a flowering tree.

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By understanding how these insects use something called "motion parallax" to see their environments, the researchers hope to design search-and-rescue robots that can do the same.

Jennifer M. McCann / Penn State

Locusts and collision avoidance: In this study, scientists focused on understanding a particular neuron in a locusts' brain to see how they could mimic this behavior for safer autonomous vehicles.

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"Because the neuron has two branches, the locust computes the changes in these two inputs and realizes that something is going to collide," an author on the study explained. This information could be a path toward keeping cars, passengers, and pedestrians safe in traffic.

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