Virtual Reality for Fruit Flies Unveils a New Approach for High-Performance Aerial Robotics

Observations made on flies' eye movements in a VR "flight simulator" could prove key to boosting the responsiveness of flying robots.

Gareth Halfacree
3 months ago β€’ Robotics
A virtual reality setup with high-speed cameras allowed the researchers to observe flies' head movements. (πŸ“·: Penn State)

Researchers at Penn State College of Engineering have come up with a way to improve the reaction times of robots β€” by emulating the way fruit flies use their eyes to enhance their flight control.

"If you are able to study flies doing what they do best β€” flying β€” you can find some incredible engineering solutions that already exist in biology," explains doctoral student and first author Benjamin Cellini of the work. The trouble, of course, comes in how you study a tiny creature which would rather fly around the room at speed.

The answer: A virtual reality "flight simulator" tailored for fruit flies, complete with LED lighting and high-speed cameras capable of tracking the flies' head movements β€” from which their point of view can be inferred.

With the test system in place, the researchers set about discovering whether the eyes were as important to flight as they believed. "We've shown that their eyes can control and stabilize their vision better than we originally thought, by reducing motion blur," Cellini notes. "Like in sports, they teach baseball players to follow the ball with their eyes to reduce blur and increase batting performance."

"An important principle we discovered here was that fly eyes slow down visual motion that go into the brain and this process enhances their flying behavior. In engineering, you are taught to apply principles from mathematics and physics to solve problems. If you want to build a robot to fly on Mars, you can use engineering concepts to provide potential solutions. But we don't always have to develop ideas from scratch; we can also seek inspiration from nature."

Having discovered that the flies' head movements increase the strength of wing steering response and react around four times faster than any other part of the fly, the work is now underway to transferring the knowledge into newly-designed flight control systems for robotics.

The team's work has been published under closed-access terms in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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