Creating Robots With a “Sixth Sense”

6a00d8341bf7f753ef0120a58b3b4a970c-320wi "Technology has overtaken nature in some domains but lags far behind in the cognitive processing of received sense impressions. My dream is to endow robots with multiple sensory modalities. Instead of always building in more cameras, we should also along the way give them additional sensors for sound and touch."

Leo van Hemmen, chair of theoretical biophysics, Technische Universitaet Muenchen.

Fish and some amphibians possess a unique sensory capability that allows them, in effect, to "touch" objects in their surroundings without direct physical contact or to "see" in the dark.


Human senses take in only a small fraction of the ambient information that surrounds us. Infrared light, electromagnetic waves, and ultrasound are examples of the external influences that we can see or hear with the help of technology whereas other species such as fish and amphibians use special sense organs, their own biological equipment, for the purpose.

One such system found in fish and some amphibians is under investigation by the research team of Professor van Hemmen. Hermmen and his team are exploring the fundamental basis for this sensory system. What they discover might one day, through biomimetic engineering, better equip robots to navigate their environments.

For the past seven years, Leo van Hemmen and his team have been investigating the capabilities of the lateral-line system and assessing the potential to translate it into technology. How broad is the operating range of such a sense organ, and what details can it reveal about moving objects? Which stimuli does the lateral-line system receive from the eddy trail of another fish, and how are these stimuli processed? To get to the bottom of these questions, the scientists develop mathematical models and compare these with experimentally observed electrical nerve signals called action potentials. The biophysicists acquire the experimental data – measurements of lateral-line organ activity in clawed frogs and cave fish – through collaboration with biologists.

"Biological systems follow their own laws," van Hemmen says, "but laws that are universally valid within biology and can be described mathematically – once you find the right biophysical or biological concepts, and the right formula."

The models yield surprisingly intuitive-sounding conclusions: Fish can reliably fix the positions of other fish in terms of a distance corresponding to their own body length. Each fish broadcasts definite and distinguishing information about itself into the field of currents. So if, for example, a prey fish discloses its size and form to a possible predator within the radius of its body length, the latter can decide if a pursuit is worth the effort. This is a key finding of van Hemmen's research team.

"The lateral-line sense fascinated me from the start because it's fundamentally different from other senses such as vision or hearing, not just at first glance but also the second," van Hemmen says. "It's not just that it describes a different quality of reality, but also that in place of just two eyes or ears this sense is fed by many discrete lateral-line organs – from 180 in the clawed frog to several thousand in a fish, each of which in turn is composed of several neuromasts. The integration behind it is a tour de force."

With a sense modeled on the lateral-line system, but which would function as well in air as under water, robots might for example move safely among crowds of people. But such a system also offers many promising applications in the water. Underwater robots could use it to orient themselves during the exploration of inaccessible cave systems and deep-sea volcanoes. Autonomous submarines could also locate obstacles in turbid water.

The Daily Galaxy via Technische Universitaet Muenchen

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