University of Cambridge > > Craik Club > Going with the flow: Visually guided flight and navigation in honeybees

Going with the flow: Visually guided flight and navigation in honeybees

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Insects, in general, and honeybees, in particular, perform remarkably well at seeing and perceiving the world and navigating effectively in it, despite possessing a brain that weighs less than a milligram and carries fewer than 0.01% as many neurons as ours does. Although most insects lack stereo vision, they use a number of ingenious strategies for perceiving their world in three dimensions and navigating successfully in it.

A number of investigations are revealing that flying insects perceive the world in three dimensions and navigate safely in it by using cues derived from image motion, rather than complex stereo mechanisms. For example, distances to objects are gauged in terms of the apparent speeds of motion of the objects’ images. Objects are distinguished from backgrounds by sensing the apparent relative motion at the boundary. Narrow gaps are negotiated safely by balancing the apparent speeds of the images in the two eyes. The speed of flight is regulated by holding constant the average image velocity as seen by both eyes. This ensures that flight speed is automatically lowered in cluttered environments, and that thrust is appropriately adjusted to compensate for headwinds and tail winds. Visual cues are also used to compensate for crosswinds. Bees landing on a horizontal surface hold constant the image velocity of the surface as they approach it, thus automatically ensuring that flight speed is close to zero at touchdown. Bees approaching a vertical surface hold the rate of expansion of the image of the surface constant during the approach, again ensuring smooth docking. Mid-air collisions with other flying insects are avoided by turning away from areas in the visual field that experience high image velocity, rather than by using looming cues or stereo information. Foraging bees gauge distance flown by integrating optic flow: they possess a visually-driven “odometer” that is robust to variations in wind, body weight, energy expenditure, and the properties of the visual environment. Bees appear to use two different odometers: a “community” odometer to signal the distance of a newly-discovered source of food to their nest mates, and a “personal” odometer to return repeatedly to a familiar food source.

Some of the insect-based strategies described above are being used to design, implement and test biologically-inspired algorithms for the guidance of autonomous terrestrial and aerial vehicles.

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