Aerodynamic imaging by mosquitoes inspires a surface detector for autonomous flying vehicles

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Science  08 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6491, pp. 634-637
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz9634

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Sensing surfaces like a mosquito

Although sonar or lidar are used by autonomous vehicles to detect nearby objects, these approaches incur significant equipment and signal-processing costs. Nakata et al. show that mosquitos detect surfaces using the flow fields caused by the movement of their own wings (see the Perspective by Young and Garratt). Near surfaces, there are small changes in the pressure and velocity that mosquitos can detect using their sensitive antennae. The authors translated this process into a simple, low-cost approach for detecting surfaces near a flying quadcopter.

Science, this issue p. 634; see also p. 586


Some flying animals use active sensing to perceive and avoid obstacles. Nocturnal mosquitoes exhibit a behavioral response to divert away from surfaces when vision is unavailable, indicating a short-range, mechanosensory collision-avoidance mechanism. We suggest that this behavior is mediated by perceiving modulations of their self-induced airflow patterns as they enter a ground or wall effect. We used computational fluid dynamics simulations of low-altitude and near-wall flights based on in vivo high-speed kinematic measurements to quantify changes in the self-generated pressure and velocity cues at the sensitive mechanosensory antennae. We validated the principle that encoding aerodynamic information can enable collision avoidance by developing a quadcopter with a sensory system inspired by the mosquito. Such low-power sensing systems have major potential for future use in safer rotorcraft control systems.

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