Scientists are currently developing bee-size flying robots dubbed RoboBees. These flapping-wing micro aerial vehicles might one day find use in an array of applications including pollinating crops, search and rescue, exploration, and surveillance. That’s only if they can be given the depth perception they need in order to avoid flying into obstacles. But the lasers that could one day help robotic bees see might also help driverless cars avoid collisions, researchers say.
Scientists aim to equip RoboBees with lidar, which emits invisible laser pulses instead of radio waves as radar does. (These lasers are safe for use around human eyes.) Sensors measure how long it takes reflected laser light to return in order to calculate the distance, size, and shape of objects.
Ultimately, the researchers aim to develop micro-lidar devices that weigh as little as 56 milligrams, says University of Florida computer vision expert Sanjeev Koppal. This research could not only help RoboBees navigate in the air, but might one day help autonomous vehicles on the road.
Though lidar is already used in cars for collision avoidance, the lidar systems in today’s driverless car prototypes use are typically about the size of camping lanterns. “Wherever lidar is used today, imagine using our smaller, more compact and energy efficient version of it,” Koppal says. “Smaller, cheaper micro-lidars could be used in more places around the car, increasing safety.”
The researchers aim to lay the foundation for micro-lidar technology in three years, Koppal says. “Our vision is that we will have demonstrations of a working sensor and associated algorithms closer to the end of the project,” says Karthik Dantu, a Koppal collaborator who is a computer scientist at the University at Buffalo in New York.
Charles Q. Choi is a science reporter who contributes regularly to IEEE Spectrum. He has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, Science, Nature, Popular Science, and National Geographic News, among others. For his work, he has hunted for mammoth DNA in Yukon, faced gunmen in Guatemala, entered the sarcophagus housing radioactive ruins in Chernobyl, and looked for mammal fossils in Wyoming based on the guidance from an artificial intelligence. In his spare time, Charles has traveled to all seven continents, including scaling the side of an iceberg in Antarctica, investigating mummies from Siberia, snorkeling in the Galápagos Islands, excavating ancient Mayan ruins in Belize, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, camping in the Outback, and avoiding thieves near Shaolin Temple.