Insect-Inspired Visual Perception for Flight Control and Collision Avoidance

Flying robots are increasingly used for tasks such as aerial mapping, fast exploration, video footage and monitoring of buildings. Autonomous flight at low altitude in cluttered and unknown environments is an active research topic because it poses challenging perception and control problems. Traditional methods for collision-free navigation at low altitude require heavy resources to deal with the complexity of natural environments, something that limits the autonomy and the payload of flying robots. Flying insects, however, are able to navigate safely and efficiently using vision as the main sensory modality. Flying insects rely on low resolution, high refresh rate, and wide-angle compound eyes to extract angular image motion and move in unstructured environments. These strategies result in systems that are physically and computationally lighter than those often found in high-definition stereovision. Taking inspiration from insects offers great potential for building small flying robots capable of navigating in cluttered environments using lightweight vision sensors. In this thesis, we investigate insect perception of visual motion and insect vision based flight control in cluttered environments. We use the knowledge gained through the modelling of neural circuits and behavioural experiments to develop flying robots with insect-inspired control strategies for goal-oriented navigation in complex environments. We start by exploring insect perception of visual motion. We present a study that reconciles an apparent contradiction in the literature for insect visual control: current models developed to explain insect flight behaviour rely on the measurement of optic flow, however the most prominent neural model for visual motion extraction (the Elementary Motion Detector, or EMD) does not measure optic flow. We propose a model for unbiased optic flow estimation that relies on comparing the output of multiple EMDs pointed in varying viewing directions. Our model is of interest of both engineers and biologists because it is computationally more efficient than other optic flow estimation algorithms, and because it represents a biologically plausible model for optic flow extraction in insect neural systems. We then focus on insect flight control strategies in the presence of obstacles. By recording the trajectories of bumblebees (Bombus terrestris), and by comparing them to simulated flights, we show that bumblebees rely primarily on the frontal part of their field of view, and that they pool optic flow in two different manners for the control of flight speed and of lateral position. For the control of lateral position, our results suggest that bumblebees selectively react to the portions of the visual field where optic flow is the highest, which correspond to the closest obstacles. Finally, we tackle goal-oriented navigation with a novel algorithm that combines aspects of insect perception and flight control presented in this thesis -- like the detection of fastest moving objects in the frontal visual field -- with other aspects of insect flight known from the literature such as saccadic flight pattern. Through simulations, we demonstrate autonomous navigation in forest-like environments using only local optic flow information and assuming knowledge about the direction to the navigation goal.

Floreano, Dario
Baird, Emily
Lausanne, EPFL

Note: The status of this file is: Anyone

 Record created 2019-06-13, last modified 2020-10-29

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