School of Informatics

Navigation in insects inspires robot design

Research into the complexities of how insects navigate is enabling the design of robots that mimic their behaviour.

The research by Edinburgh scientists into insect brains is being showcased at an international conference.

Brain circuitry

Insects have tiny brains, but they navigate extremely well.

Barbara WebbSchool of Informatics
Ant carrying a leaf

The team has built computer algorithms to better understand insect neural circuits, then created robots to mimic how these circuits work.

Their findings could aid the development of robots to carry out mundane or repetitive tasks, such as spraying crops or clearing litter.

One example of these robots is a mobile phone on wheels.

Using an in-built camera and compass, the team can run programs in the insect’s natural environment.

This helps to see how closely the machine mimics the insect’s behaviour.

Such a robot can record insect-eye views through a field of vegetation and use its memory of these views to follow the same route on its next journey.

Using the compass and the speed of the wheels, the robot can keep track of the direction and distance it has moved from its home position and use this to go directly home.

Robot control

By copying insects, it is hoped that control of robot for simple tasks can be made cheaper, simpler and more robust.

For example, a group of insect-like robots could gather rubbish and bring it to a single location, in the way that ants bring food to their nest.

Or a robot could move around a field of crops, dispensing fertiliser or pesticides.

The research is being presented at the FENS Forum of Neuroscience in Berlin.

It is difficult to measure neural activity in an insect flying or running around its natural environment. Building robot models helps us bridge the gap between brain and behaviour.

Barbara WebbSchool of Informatics

Related links

FENS 2018