Flight control in complex environments
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.
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.