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  • Bird’s-eye view used to craft autopilot technology

Sep 2011
Compiled by BioPhotonics staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Once used as wartime messengers, pigeons now have a new calling: acting as informants for navigation technology design.

Harvard University research involved training messenger pigeons to fly through an artificial forest with a tiny camera mounted to their heads, literally offering a bird’s-eye view and enabling the scientists to reconstruct both what the birds saw and how they moved.

Pigeons were fitted with a tiny head-camera for their flight through an artificial forest. Images courtesy of Talia Moore.

The navigation methods that enable a pigeon to fly quickly and accurately through difficult environments could be used as a model for autopilot technology and even lead to new developments in robotics. With >300° panoramic vision, pigeons are well suited for the task because their wraparound vision makes it possible to assess obstacles in their periphery. In addition, they can stabilize their vision and switch rapidly between views by using “head saccade,” a small, rapid head movement.

The pigeons also offer other skills important for autopilot machines. For instance, they tend to choose the straightest, most direct route, reaching the other side of the forest quickly and energy-efficiently.

The scientists observed also that pigeons tend to exit the forest in the exact same direction as they entered, even with all the twists and turns they make while navigating.

These findings, presented in July at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference, could prove crucial when sending a robot or unmanned aircraft to a specified destination.

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