Bio-inspired Intelligent Information Systems
Borrowing from biology to build better sensors
By mimicking the way some animals detect predators and prey, researchers are building a new generation of small, accurate sensors.
Working in the CILIA project, the researchers are developing mechanical devices that function in a similar way to the tiny motion-sensing hairs that help crickets, bats and fish to find food and avoid danger.
The team’s biologically inspired sensor systems have a potentially endless range of uses, from helping robots navigate, to monitoring pollution and checking the health of hospital patients. They could even be used to develop better hearing aids.
Inspired by nature
Highly effective sensory systems are found throughout nature. The tiny hairs on a cricket’s back detect the airflow caused by a predator creeping up on it. Fish have a lateral line along their bodies covered in tiny receptor organs called neuromasts that pick up on changes in the flow of water to detect other fish and obstacles.
Bats, meanwhile, use echolocation, shooting high frequency noise from their noses and then detecting the rebounding signals in a highly accurate form of biological sonar.
Mechanics to mimic biology
By reverse engineering biological sensory systems and studying how they work, the CILIA researchers are building mechanical replicas that could dramatically improve existing sensor technology.
The sensors are made up of tiny arrays of artificial hairs developed using micro-electronic mechanical systems (MEMS) technology. The mechanical sensors closely mimic their biological counterparts, with different versions designed for use in air and water.
The researchers are planning to put the sensors into different demonstrator systems. One is a mobile robot that uses the sensors to navigate, while another is modelled around a robotic bat head developed by the CILIA team in a previous project called CIRCE.
The robotic bat head accurately replicates the echolocation system of the flying mammals, and uses a transducer to convert electrical signals to noise and vice versa across the entire 20 to 200kHz spectrum used by different bat species.
Understanding what an animal senses
The researchers are also studying how crickets and fish use the information from their sensory systems.
The work should lead to new insights into how the animals determine the presence and precise location of an object or another animal in extremely different environments. It should also shed light on how they identify different sensory signals to decide what is a threat, what is food and what is just background ‘noise’.
The project partners foresee numerous commercial applications for their sensors. They could, for example, replace or supplement the visual and laser-based systems commonly used in robots for navigation. They could also be used to build smart clothes that monitor a person’s health or to monitor airflow over critical sections of an airplane wing.
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