Wasp research may lead to smarter, more efficient drones

Researchers in Australia have been studying the flight behaviors of ground-nesting wasps, trying to learn how they navigate. The knowledge that they have gleaned from decades of research might be adapted for use in autonomous drones and could help roboticists develop smarter unmanned aerial vehicles and self-flying robots.

Unlike other bees that fly once around their nest for reconnaissance, the ground wasps are much more diligent, conducting daily flights that allow them to detect changes in their environment. The wasps then compare this new location information with the old data as they navigate the area and find their way back to their nests. “The learning and homing abilities of wasps make them smarter than anything humans know how to build,” said Professor Jochen Zeil of the Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Biology

As part of their research, the Australian researchers created a virtual wasp to study flight behavior and mechanics. The wasp models were designed using data the team collected from high-speed cameras that were positioned to follow wasp eye movements during flight. This 3D model made it possible for researchers to determine what a wasp sees when it is flying. Researchers discovered that the wasps were able to complete their complex task of navigation using a type of panoramic vision that allows them to take in a wide field of view at a lower resolution.

This panoramic view could be adapted for utilization in drones, which roboticists could equip with low-resolution cameras that have a wide field of view. A lower res camera potentially lowers the cost of building a drone and may influence the processing power needed to analyze this incoming navigation data. Less processing may also decrease energy consumption leading to better battery life and longer drone flights. “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,” said Zeil.

The wasp research, led by Wolfgang Stürzl from the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, German Aerospace Center, together with Australia’s Zeil, has been published recently in the journal Current Biology.