Friday, January 04, 2008

Robot Bats

Robot Bat Head
A cool project was recently funded by the UK, to the tune of 2.5 million Euros, to develop an artificial bat. It goes by the ungainly name of ChiRoPing, and I don't see any mention of the origin of that mouthful -- chiroptera robot ... ping? Researchers from four different universities will study both insect gleaning and fishing bats to understand how they use their senses to find, capture, and handle their prey in the dark. To quote their web site, their mission is "developing versatile and robust perception using sonar systems that integrate active sensing, morphology, and behaviour." They'll be leveraging the existing work done by the CIRCE project's (Chiroptera Inspired Robotic CEphaloid) bionic bat head, pictured above.
This project is truly ambitious. We know relatively little about bat behavior, let alone enough to model it artificially. It appears they are already recruiting bat biologists to try to get inside those little bat brains and understand how they perceive the world. Too bad I don't have my PhD yet.
What I find fascinating about this, as a US citizen, is that the funding is apparently completely unrelated to defense. You would think that military types would REALLY want to know how bats fly and navigate in the dark, and they are already funding some research by Sharon Swartz at Brown University. But as far as I can tell, the funding from the Seventh Framework Programme is just about coordinating research. This means that hopefully other scientists will be able to benefit from the results of this program, though to be fair I'm not sure there are limits to what results Swartz and her team will be able to publish.
I am looking forward to seeing (sadly, without sonar) the results of this project.


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