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Robots and Autopilots Could Use a Bird’s-Eye View
Jul 2011
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 6, 2011 — New research on how birds can fly so quickly and accurately through dense forests may lead to new developments in robotics and autopilots.

Scientists from Harvard University trained pigeons to fly through an artificial forest with a tiny camera attached to their heads, giving literally a bird’s-eye view. Attaching the camera to the bird while filming them from either side meant we could reconstruct both what the bird sees and how it moves, said Huai-Ti Lin, a lead researcher for this work.

Pigeons were fitted with a tiny head-camera before they flew through the artificial forest. (Images: Talia Moore, Harvard University)

The methods pigeons use to navigate through difficult environments could be used as a model for autopilot technology. Pigeons, with greater than 300° panoramic vision, are well suited to this task because their wraparound vision allows them to assess obstacles on either side. They can also stabilize their vision and switch rapidly between views using what is called a "head saccade," a small rapid movement of the head.

The researchers also showed that the birds have other skills that would be important for autopiloted machines; for example, they tend to choose the straightest routes.

A pigeon, fitted with a camera, about to fly through the artificial forest that can be seen in the background.

"This is a very efficient way of getting through the forest, because the birds have to do less turns and therefore use less energy but also because they reach the other side quicker," Lin said. Also interesting is that pigeons seem to exit the forest heading in exactly the same direction as when they entered, in spite of all the twists and turns they made in the forest, he added.

When using a robot or an unmanned aircraft, it would be invaluable to simply provide it with the coordinates of the destination without having to give it detailed information on all the obstacles it might meet on the way. "If we could develop the technology to follow the same methods as birds, we could let the robot get on with it without giving it any more input," Lin said.

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Americasautopilot technologyBiophotonicsbird visionbird’s-eye viewscamerasHarvard UniversityHuai-Ti LinimagingMassachusettspigeonsResearch & Technologyrobotics

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