When bats leave their caves at night to go eat bugs, they can swarm in the millions while somehow managing to not crash into each other, which is a pretty clever trick. Kenn Sebesta, a researcher at Boston University, is wondering just how exactly they pull this off, and there's nothing better than good old fashioned experimentin' with robots to see how the bats do what they do.
This is Batcopter 2.0 (aka "Quady"), a home-built quadrotor made from carbon-fiber arrow shafts, twine, glue, zip ties, bamboo, foam, and netting to make sure that any bats not doing their jobs wouldn't get decapitated by a stray prop. A GoPro camera was stuck on the front and the whole thing was piloted from the ground with an array of three high-speed infrared cameras watching the glowing hot robot-on-bat nighttime aerial action:
To control the Batcopter, Sebesta says he and his colleagues used OpenPilot, an open source autopilot platform for small UAVs, which "allowed us to get so far so fast and was the real hero."
The UAV did end up having an unfortunate accident shortly thereafter, but not before collecting terabytes of high quality video of the bats interacting with movements of the UAV. The Batcopter team is planning to analyze this footage to try and see if there are any fundamental laws of flying that the bats follow to keep from colliding with other bats and wayward robots. If there are, it could lead to better autonomous flight controllers for UAVs, as well as ultrasonic squeaks of relief from bats everywhere as scientists find something else to do with their time.
UPDATE: No animals were harmed in the making of this robot! Professor John Baillieul, who directs Boston University's Laboratory for Intelligent Mechatronic Systems, writes us to say the researchers involved in the project, which includes several biologists, are very careful to design and use technology that is animal-friendly and meets all of the acceptable standards of animal care and use in the laboratory and field. "We do hope to use robotic air vehicles to observe bats and other flying animals in ways that have not been done up to now," Baillieul says, "but I can't emphasize too strongly that we have not harmed and are not seeking to harm or harass animals in any way, including making them fearful."