Pigeon vision can teach autopilots fly more accurately

July 3rd, 2011 - 1:37 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, July 3 (IANS) Pigeons’ ability to navigate through forests quickly and accurately is inspiring new developments in robotics and autopilot technology.

Scientists from Harvard University trained pigeons to fly through an artificial forest with a tiny camera attached to their heads, literally giving a bird’s-eye view.

“Attaching the camera to the bird as well as filming them from either side means we can reconstruct both what the bird sees and how it moves,” says Huai-Ti Lin, who led the research, with his background in flying remote control airplanes himself.

The methods pigeons use to navigate through difficult environments could be used as a model for autopilot technology.

Pigeons, with 300 degree panoramic vision, are well suited to this task because this wrap-round vision allows them to assess obstacles on either side.

They can also stabilise their vision and switch rapidly between views using what is called a “head saccade”, a small rapid movement of the head, according to a Harvard statement.

Researchers also showed that the birds have other skills that would be important for
autopiloted machines, for example they tend to choose the straightest routes.

“This is a very efficient way of getting through the forest, because the birds have to do less turns and therefore use less energy,” says Lin.

“Another interesting find is that pigeons seem to exit the forest heading in exactly the same direction as when they entered, in spite of all the twist and turns they made in the forest,” he says.

When using a robot or an unmanned aircraft it would be invaluable to simply provide it with the coordinates of the destination without having to give it detailed information of all the obstacles it might meet on the way.

“If we could develop the technology to follow the same methods as birds, we could let the robot get on with it without giving it any more input,” says Lin.

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