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June 06, 2018 Wednesday 02:04:36 PM IST

What if Drones could Navigate Like a Bat?

Technology Inceptions

Ohio: To get drones to fly around complicated obstacles in the dark by themselves, University of Cincinnati researchers are turning to the pros. Bats have evolved to use sound and echolocation to navigate and find food. Their sonar is so keen, in fact, that nectar-loving bats can "spot" their favorite flowers in pitch darkness using only sound. Now researchers in UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science are harnessing this superpower to improve drone navigation and autonomy.

Drones can be piloted manually using line of sight, video cameras, global positioning satellites and laser-based radar called LIDAR. UC for years has been developing autonomous drones that rely on fuzzy logic and other forms of artificial intelligence.

But the latest UC drone project adds another navigational layer: sound. UC professor and bat expert Dieter Vanderelst wants to give drones of all kinds the added ability to observe and avoid obstacles with echolocation.

"The problem is challenging because inside a building, you have obstacles in a very cluttered environment," said Manish Kumar, UC associate professor of aerospace engineering. "The unmanned aerial vehicle can navigate in smoky or dusty conditions using sonar."

Leaf-nosed bats use their odd-shaped appendages to amplify and focus sound at a constant frequency. Other bats create a symphony of chatters, which enables them to find fruit or flowers by sound.

"Intuitively you'd think a flower is easy to find because it's colorful and stands out from the green of the forest. But color doesn't mean anything at night," Vanderelst said. "Their ability to scan the leaves to find flowers is either incredible or we're just missing something that makes it easy. We might be looking at it from the wrong point of view."

While our binocular vision gives us a 210-degree panoramic view, Vanderelst said bats have a much narrower field of detection using a beam of sound that spans less than 60 degrees. "It's like they're waving a flashlight in front of them to find prey in the dark," Vanderelst said.

Bats are expert at it. Besides catching food on the fly, bats can find insects and frogs that are hiding motionless on leaves. To understand how he might translate bat skills to a computer drone, Vanderelst started in his UC lab. He built a robot.

"I'm interested in looking at how bats actively use sonar to get around the world," Vanderelst said. "I hope to convince people we can use echolocation on very small drones."

Vanderelst designed his sensor system by taking cues from nature. First, he used a 3D printer to render the heads of tiny leaf-nosed bats as a reference guide. His robot's microphones mimic the shape and contour of bat ears, placed slightly offset on the robot frame in much the same way a barn owl's ears are asymmetrical on its skull. This helps the night hunters home in on prey in complete darkness using sound alone.

The robot's bat-like chirps range from 25 to 75 kilohertz, but Vanderelst said 50 is the sweet spot. To capture the echolocation ability of bats, a drone will have to be nearly as acrobatic.

(Indebted to various sources)