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The fly's eye and the money market

By Mandyam Srinivasan - posted Thursday, 30 September 2004

Think twice before you swat the fly perched on the rim of your teacup. Not only will you spill your tea, but you are also destroying one of nature’s most marvellous pieces of machinery.

Anyone who has watched a fly execute a flawless landing, observed a honeybee returning to its hive after collecting nectar from a flower kilometres away, or ants navigating their way across scores of metres of rough terrain, knows that insects possess sensory, movement and navigation systems that are fast, accurate and reliable.

Insects cope remarkably well with their world, despite having relatively simple sensory organs and nervous systems, and brains weighing mere thousandths of a gram or less. There is a lot we can learn from them.


Recognising this, there is a growing worldwide effort to develop insect-like hexapod robots for fast travel in rugged terrain, tiny robot aircraft (or UAVs) for surveillance, combat and monitoring and “sniffer” robots capable of detecting minute traces of just about any volatile substance.

Examples include novel sensors for panoramic vision (based on the fly’s eye), for attitude stabilisation (based on horizon detection), for steering (inspired by insect sensing of the polarisation pattern of the sky), for orientation (based on insect hearing and infrared reception), and for sensing important or dangerous smells (based on insect antennae). The ability of insects to co-operate in swarms is teaching us how groups of machines can be made self-controlling. Swarms of insect-like robots could be employed in tasks as sophisticated as search-and-inform missions, or as mundane as cleaning your office window.

The ability of insects to store energy and use it for rapid movement is paving the way for completely new kinds of engines and energy storage systems.

This research is starting to produce important applications in the areas of defence, security, surveillance, agriculture, medicine, the environment and exploration. I also expect children of the next generation will enjoy some truly remarkable toys - robotic animals, robot flyers and teams of semi-intelligent robots that collaborate to play games like soccer.

Australia is a leader in entomology - the science of insects - and has a remarkable track record for understanding their habits and using them widely. Among our more noteworthy achievements are:

  • the use of a moth, Cactoblastis, to eliminate the prickly pear plague that threatened vast areas of NSW and Queensland in the 1930s;
  • the use of a weevil to save Africa’s Lake Victoria and PNG’s rivers from devastation from a water weed;
  • the use of dung beetles to reduce bushflies, enabling Australians to enjoy our outdoors lifestyle;
  • the development of Aeroguard insect repellent; and
  • the development of a vaccine to prevent ticks.

Our ability to understand insects and how they perform the remarkable tasks they do, using some fairly limited equipment, is a key to our taking part in this spectacular new phase of the robotics revolution. Insect systems are the source of inspiration for many new, efficient and economical ways to do complicated things.

So it is disturbing to reflect that more than two-thirds of Australia’s insect fauna remains unknown to science and, according to a recent estimate, at present rates of discovery it will take another 240 years - more than our national history to date - before it is. The dwindling investment in biodiversity discovery means that there will remain much about our own continent, and what is in it, that we neither know nor understand.

Does this matter?

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First published in The Australian on August 23, 2004.

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About the Author

Mandyam Srinivasan is an Inaugural ARC Federation Fellow, Professor of Visual Science, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University, and Director, Centre for Visual Science, ANU.

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