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MOTHS could help scientists develop decision-making programs for autonomous drones

Flight patterns of MOTHS could help scientists develop decision-making programs for autonomous drones to help them navigate unfamiliar environments

  • US researchers attached tobacco hawk moths to metal rods and torque sensors 
  • The moths were then studied as they flew through a ‘forest’ made of light beams
  • Moths use a flexible navigation strategy that works best in dense forests
  • Using the data gathered the team wrote a program that could guide drones 

The flight patterns of moths could help scientists to develop decision-making programs for autonomous drones to help them navigate unfamiliar environments.

Researchers led from Washington State in the US analysed how moths flew through a simulated forest of light beams to create a drone navigation model to test.

They found that the moths’ navigation strategy is highly flexible and best suited for dense forests — an adaptation that likely evolved in response to their habitat.

By using real data from animal flight paths, the researchers said that they should be able to program drones to autonomously navigate cluttered environments.

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The flight patterns of moths could help scientists to develop decision-making programs for autonomous drones to help them navigate unfamiliar environments

The flight patterns of moths could help scientists to develop decision-making programs for autonomous drones to help them navigate unfamiliar environments

Biologist Thomas Daniel of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues mounted eight tobacco hawk moths — or Mantuca sexta — on the end of metal rods that were connected to a torque meter.

They then projected in front of each moth a moving ‘forest’ scene made up of beams of light — through which the moths navigated.

The team collected data on the paths each moth took through the virtual forest, and used this to create a mathematical model to describe how they navigated. 

Professor Daniel and his colleagues then took this model and converted into a decision-making program that could be used to guide the flight of a drone.

The drone-guiding program was put to the test in both the same simulated forest, as well as different forest configurations with varying densities of trees. 

Based on their modelling, the researchers concluded that tobacco hawk moths navigate by relying on the pattern created by the apparent motion of objects caused by their flight — which the team refer to as ‘optical flow’.

‘We should not be surprised by these results,’ the team wrote in their paper. 

‘Optical flow has been demonstrated to be a key factor underlying the control of flight responses in insects.’ 

Biologist Thomas Daniel of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues mounted eight tobacco hawk moths — or Mantuca sexta — on the end of metal rods that were connected to a torque meter. Pictured, an artist's impression of a hawk moth in flight

Biologist Thomas Daniel of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues mounted eight tobacco hawk moths — or Mantuca sexta — on the end of metal rods that were connected to a torque meter. Pictured, an artist’s impression of a hawk moth in flight

In contrast, however, the flight program that the researchers optimised for drones were seen to perform around 60 per cent better in the simulated tests.

This is because the program also based its navigation decisions on information regarding the exact location of objects in immediate surroundings.

Despite this, however, the researchers found that the moth’s navigation strategy was highly adaptable and performed well in various forest layouts — and best in dense forests, likely thanks to the dense forests the moths normally inhabit.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology

HOW COULD DRONES BE USED TO SPEED UP DELIVERIES?

Impatient shoppers will be pleased to hear that Amazon’s drones could significantly speed up the speed at which deliveries can be made.

The plan is for Amazon’s PrimeAir service to eventually deliver small packages weighing up to 5lbs (2.27kg) in 30 minutes or less.

Amazon got British approval for three new types of tests, including flying drones that are no longer within sight of their operators in rural and suburban areas.

The other two are having one person operate several highly automated drones and testing devices to make the drones able to identify and avoid obstacles.

During the test the drones will be only allowed to fly an altitude of 400ft (122m) and kept away from operating near airport flight paths. 

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