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Flight control in complex environments

Due to its high spatial complexity, rapidly changing light intensities and thick canopy that blocks out much of the sky, the rainforest is arguably one of the most challenging natural environments in which to control flight and to navigate. Although there are many flying animals, including insects, which regularly use vision to navigate over large distances through the rainforest, there is currently no man-made machine that is capable of achieving such feats.

Orchid bee flying in rainforest
A highly aerobatic orchid bee hovering in front of a scent source.

The ultimate purpose of this project is to discover and describe – through anatomical, physiological and behavioural analyses, as well as computer modelling and simulation – the visual specialisations and flight control strategies that enable insects, with their miniature brains and limited visual systems, to safely navigate through complex and unpredictable environments such as the tropical rainforest.

In collaboration with engineers, this knowledge will be used to develop a computationally efficient strategy for flight control, obstacle avoidance and navigation for autonomous robots that is functional across a broad range of natural environments, from bright open fields, to dark, cluttered forests.

Orchid bee flying in experimental setup
A wasp negotiating a narrow gap. We use behavioural experiments to explore the visual information that insects use to fly safely through narrow spaces.

The perfect model system for understanding three-dimensional flight control and navigation in complex environments is the fast-flying, highly aerobatic orchid bee, which has inhabited the tropical rainforests of Central America for the past 20 million years and is capable of navigating over tens of kilometres through the dense rainforest undergrowth. By performing comparative analyses between orchid bees and other insects that inhabit the rainforest and also insects that have evolved in less complex environments, such as bumblebees and wasps, we aim to develop a thorough understanding of how light level and physical environment shape and limit the performance of the visual system and flight control behaviour of flying insects.

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Close up on orchid bee
An orchid bee, one of the model animals used in this project, that inhabits the tropical rainforests of Central America.

Collaborators

Prof. Willi Ribi, Research School of Biology, Australian National University

Funding