A bio-inspired flying robot sheds light on insect piloting abilities

Curr Biol. 2007 Feb 20;17(4):329-35. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2006.12.032. Epub 2007 Feb 8.


When insects are flying forward, the image of the ground sweeps backward across their ventral viewfield and forms an "optic flow," which depends on both the groundspeed and the groundheight. To explain how these animals manage to avoid the ground by using this visual motion cue, we suggest that insect navigation hinges on a visual-feedback loop we have called the optic-flow regulator, which controls the vertical lift. To test this idea, we built a micro-helicopter equipped with an optic-flow regulator and a bio-inspired optic-flow sensor. This fly-by-sight micro-robot can perform exacting tasks such as take-off, level flight, and landing. Our control scheme accounts for many hitherto unexplained findings published during the last 70 years on insects' visually guided performances; for example, it accounts for the fact that honeybees descend in a headwind, land with a constant slope, and drown when travelling over mirror-smooth water. Our control scheme explains how insects manage to fly safely without any of the instruments used onboard aircraft to measure the groundheight, groundspeed, and descent speed. An optic-flow regulator is quite simple in terms of its neural implementation and just as appropriate for insects as it would be for aircraft.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Altitude
  • Animals
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Motion Perception / physiology*
  • Robotics / instrumentation*
  • Robotics / methods*
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*
  • Wind