moth on leaf

The movement of moths could improve flight navigation for automated drones

Image credit: Dreamstime

The way moths move through their environment could be replicated by drones in order to navigate around unfamiliar locales, Boston University researchers have said.

While drones are typically human-controlled at the moment, firms such as Amazon are trying to convince governments to allow them to open up the airways for automated drones that can make deliveries, among other innovations.

Such plans introduce risk, as the AI in control will need to cope with environments it has not encountered before.

To understand how real moths plan their route, the researchers mounted 8 hawk moths (Mantuca sexta) on metal rods connected to a torque meter.


In front of each moth they projected a moving forest scene created from beams of light for the moth to navigate.

They captured data from the moth flight and built a mathematical model to describe the moth trajectory through the virtual forest.

The flight data was translated into a decision-making program that could be used to control a drone. They compared how the drone and the moth performed in simulations of the same forest layout, as well as new configurations with different densities of trees.

The researchers found that hawk moths mainly rely on the pattern created by the apparent motion of objects caused by their flight, which conforms with studies of flight behaviour in other insects.

However, the flight programs optimised for drones performed 60 per cent better in the simulated forest because they also incorporated information about the exact location of objects in their surroundings into their navigational decisions.

Although the researchers were able to optimise the strategy used by moths to improve performance in certain environments, the moths’ strategy was more adaptable, performing well in a variety of different forest layouts.

The moth model performed best in dense forests, suggesting that hawk moths have evolved a flight strategy adapted to the thick forests they often encounter.

The researchers say that by using real data from animal flight paths they can program bio-inspired drones that will be able to navigate autonomously in cluttered environments.

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