A decade of research figuring out how wasps navigate could help drones and self-piloting robots fly smarter, researchers in Australia claim, having concluded that once again nature has proved itself smarter than human inventors. The team examined the flight behaviors of ground-nesting wasps, which can fly significant distances but still find their way back home after foraging.
As you might expect when you’re dealing with relatively tiny insects – not to mention when those insects pack a sting – it’s not entirely straightforward figuring out why they behave the way they do. To get to the bottom of the navigation question, the team created a virtual wasp by monitoring the insects’ eye movements with high-speed stereo cameras.
Those 3D models allowed them to track and assess what information the wasps were taking in as they fly, and judge why that was the case.
What became clear is that wasp behavior also differs significantly from other insects, predominantly because their nests are under the ground rather than above.
Honeybees, for instance, only ever carry out a single reconnaissance flight that’s used to familiarize the location of their nest, and against which every other journey is compared. In contrast, the wasps do a learning flight once a day, which helps protect them against any changes in the environment that could have occurred overnight.
The memory of that daily flight is then compared to what the wasp sees on subsequent trips, skirting left and right in arcs accordingly so as to bring them in to land more accurately. By using a fresher record of the ground around the nest’s entrance, meanwhile, those same features can be used to help identify their front door.
“The learning and homing abilities of wasps make them smarter than anything humans know how to build,” Professor Jochen Zeil of The Australian National University said of the findings, though he points out that doesn’t mean we can’t borrow some of the insects’ talents.
For instance, rather than memorizing a large amount of information from a narrow field of view, the wasps have more panoramic vision that sees a broad swathe of the world around them but at much lower resolution. That could have significant cost and processing implications when picking out autonomous drone cameras.
“Roboticists look to replace expensive high resolution cameras and reduce power consumption without losing information that is crucial for visual navigation and our research could help with this,” Professor Zeil argues.
It’s not the first time that insect biology has helped shape future robots. Earlier this month, researchers suggested that future search & rescue operations could be assisted with a robo-cockroach, using a special flexing body structure that would be able to squeeze into tight spaces without compromising on performance.
Last year, meanwhile, German firm Festo demonstrated robotic butterflies that could fly in dense groups without colliding.