Flying insects have developed the ability to navigate natural environments using effective strategies, but studying their movements is a difficult hurdle to overcome due to their size and quick movements. Typically, scientists will garner insect movement data by using a tether, securing them for stationary flight, or restricted in confined lab chambers, which is far from being natural. Now, researchers from CRNS, Universite de Lorraine, and INRAE have designed a robot that can track and film free-flying insects without impairment.
Known as the "lab-on-cables," the fast-moving cable-driven parallel robot resembles the cable-operated SkyCams used in professional sports and the Olympics. The robot is equipped with cameras mounted on cables so it can move automatically with the insect in three dimensions. The flying frame that surrounds the insect is an open cube design, and measures out to six meters long, four meters wide, and three meters high, giving it plenty of room for natural flight. The frame is connected to a cable system that's driven by motorized winches. An optical system, which computes the 3D movement of the insect, is attached to the frame and outfitted with IR and calibrated cameras to target and film them while in flight.
To keep the camera system centered on the insect in flight, the team designed a program that takes into account the insect's flight path and combines it with predictive models to determine its future locations, while minimizing tracking errors using real-time flight data. The scientists validated their lab-on-cables robot design using Agrotis ipsilon moths flying freely at up to three meters per second, which was tracked successfully, garnering a plethora of data.
They also were able to use their predictive flight algorithm to do the same with mosquitos and fruit flies, and are looking into adding sensors to future prototypes to assess chemically controlled (pheromones) flight behavior.