Looks like a drone, flies like a drone, sees the world like an insect

Due to their small sizes and the ready-made blueprints of their anatomies, insects often inspire the design of drones and robots. The JumpRoach mimics insect mechanics to leap over five feet into the air. Velociroaches work in tandem, like ants, to climb small obstacles. Harvard’s tiny RoboBee is even capable of perching, an essential, energy-saving trait found in most flying animals.

Now, a physics student from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EFPL) in Switzerland has developed an autonomous drone capable of flying around obstacles thanks to a vision algorithm that’s modeled off of insect eyes.

Insect vision is far more basic than ours, which means a vision system similar to an insect’s would require far less complexity than one that’s based off of human vision. “Using cameras to simulate the human eye requires a lot of computing power” said physics student Darius Merk in a press release. “For this, the drone would need to have a small on-board computer, which would make it difficult to miniaturize.”

InsectDrone
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Rather than weighing the drone down with an on-board computer, Merk reimagined the machine’s vision and developed and algorithm that’s inspired by the faceted vision of insects. To maintain a 360-degree view, the drone needs two cameras which amount to over one ounce.

“Insects find their way by using their optical flow to assess how an image moves, with a distant object moving more slowly than a closer one,” Merk said.

Since the drone requires so little computing power, it may be possible to shrink the device to just four inches in length, making it ideal for tasks that entail squeezing into tight spaces, such as search missions in the rubble of a natural disaster.

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