Robotic insects are being improved upon every day. Now, researchers from the University at Buffalo (UB) are giving robotic bees tiny laser-powered sensors that act as eyes so they can sense the size, shape and distance of approaching objects.
“Essentially, it’s the same technology that automakers are using to ensure that driverless cars don’t crash into things,” says Karthik Dantu, UB computer scientist. “Only we need to shrink that technology so it works on robot bees that are no bigger than a penny.”
The researchers teamed up with Harvard University and the University of Florida to work on this project, an offshoot of the RoboBee initiative, led by Harvard and Northeastern University, which aims to create insect-inspired robots that could eventually be used in agriculture and disaster relief.
So far, research has proved that robot bees are capable of tethered flight and moving while submerged in water, but they do experience limitations in depth perception. For example, a robot bee cannot sense what is in front of it.
If robotic bees are going to avoid flying into walls or land on precise targets, this would be problematic, according to Dantu.
The UB team is addressing the issue by giving them remote sensing technology called LIDAR (light detection and ranging), the same laser-based sensor system that works in driverless cars.
LIDAR works like radar, but it emits invisible laser beams instead of microwaves. The beams capture light reflected from distant objects and then sensors measure the time it takes for the light to return in order to calculate the distance and shape of the objects.
Lastly, the information is analyzed by computer algorithms to form a coherent image of the car’s path, which enables the car to “see” what is around.
Dantu and the team want to shrink this system down into a system called “micro-LIDAR.”
To make it happen, University of Florida researchers are developing the tiny sensor that measures the light’s reflection, while Dantu is creating novel perception and navigation algorithms that enable the bees to process and map the world around it. Harvard researchers will then incorporate the technology into the bees.
Once completed, the technology would not be limited to robot insects. The sensors could also be used in wearables, medical devices and mobile devices.
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