Inspired by fruit flies, an interdisciplinary research team of professors from National Tsing Hua University’s departments of Electrical Engineering and Life Sciences have developed a bionic optical nerve artificial intelligence (AI) chip that will allow unmanned aerial vehicles to automatically avoid flying obstacles while operating in low power energy-saving mode. The group’s invention will allow aerial drones to conserve battery power, but the researchers expect the chip will also have a broad range of applications in the technology of the future, including self-driving cars, smart glasses and robotic arms.
According to the researchers, in the past autonomous devices would avoid flying obstacles by continually sending and receiving electromagnetic and infrared pulses, but this method puts a significant demand on battery power. Scientists explored using an optical lens to photograph and analyze images as an alternative solution. However, processing the large quantity of image data at a fast enough rate proved difficult.
Samuel Tang, a professor at the University’s Department of Electrical Engineering, says that the team had to find a way to surmount the current limitations of AI technology, and turned to the natural world for inspiration. The team enlisted the help of Lo Chung-chuan, a professor specializing in the brains of fruit flies at the university’s Institute of Systems Neuroscience, and replicated the insect’s optical nerve to develop an energy-saving, highly efficient AI chip.
Photo courtesy of National Tsing Hua University
The researchers still had to overcome the problem of overloading the unmanned aerial vehicles’s processor with a vast amount of data. The sensor captured approximately 30 frames per second of visual data. If each frame were to be processed, not only would this be ineffective but it would drain the drone’s battery in a matter of minutes. Tang says that the cameras on modern smartphones capture pictures made of tens of millions of pixels, whereas a fruit fly only captures about 800 pixels. After the fruit fly’s brain receives an outline image, contrast and other basic sensory information, it filters out any unimportant data.
Lo says that the secret behind the fruit fly’s ability to detect movement in the air is the luminous flux created by moving organisms. These light trails in the surrounding sky are picked up within fly’s field of vision. The fly’s brain then analyzes these trails of light to understand the distance of objects in the surrounding environment. The same process applied to unmanned aerial vehicles allows them to avoid flying into obstacles, says Lo.
(Translated by Edward Jones, Taipei Times)
Photo courtesy of National Tsing Hua University
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