How do flying insects distinguish between up and down?

Flying insects can determine the direction of gravity even if they don’t have acceleration-sensitive organs.

Humans have the inner ear, a small, delicate set of cavities that tell us whether we are prone or prone, standing or moving, and when it malfunctions it makes us dizzy. Drones often use accelerometers to estimate the direction of gravity so they can stay aloft. But until now, how flying insects do this has been a mystery.

Researchers regularly observe nature to see how it solves certain problems. Bionics – an artificial word made up of biology and technology – has already copied tracking systems like those of dolphins for underwater sonar, or burdock spikes to develop Velcro. Even Leonardo da Vinci was inspired by birds for his flying machines. But why wouldn’t it work the other way around? Can technical solutions provide deeper insight into unresolved biological phenomena?

A team from Delft University of Technology, the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Aix-Marseille has shown that bees can estimate the direction of gravity by having their sensors optically detect movements in their environment. their own movement, i.e. predicting how they will move. This results, published by the researchers in the journal Nature, are an important step towards the future development of small autonomous drones. Also, it can explain how flying insects distinguish between up and down. This demonstrates how the synergy between robotics and biology can lead to technological advances and new approaches to biological research.

While drones often use accelerometers to estimate the direction of gravity, flying insects do not have a specific sense of acceleration. For this reason, scientists investigated optical flow, which is how an individual perceives movement in relation to its surroundings. It is the visual impression that passes through our retina when we move. For example, if we are sitting on a train, the trees along the tracks pass by faster than the mountains further away. However, visual flow is not enough for an insect to detect the direction of gravity. The research team then discovered that by combining optical flow with motion prediction, it is quite possible to develop a sense of gravity.

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The researchers’ experiments with flying robots show that this principle leads to stable but slightly wobbling attitude control. According to scientists, the oscillations are very reminiscent of insect flight. However, testing this conjecture can be difficult, as it involves brain processes that are difficult to control during an animal’s flight. “While this hypothesis could theoretically explain how flying insects determine gravity, we still need confirmation from a biological experiment that they actually use this mechanism,” the researchers said, according to a statement from the institutes involved.


Accommodating unobservability to control flight attitude with optical flow

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