Why Rat-Brained Robots Are So Good at Navigating Unfamiliar Terrain

Running algorithms that mimic a rat’s navigation neurons, heavy machines will soon plumb Australia’s underground mines

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3. Engineering Cognition

If you take a common brown rat and drop it into a lab maze or a subway tunnel, it will immediately begin to explore its surroundings, sniffing around the edges, brushing its whiskers against surfaces, peering around corners and obstacles. After a while, it will return to where it started, and from then on, it will treat the explored terrain as familiar.

Roboticists have long dreamed of giving their creations similar navigation skills. To be useful in our environments, robots must be able to find their way around on their own. Some are already learning to do that in homes, offices, warehouses, hospitals, hotels, and, in the case of self-driving cars, entire cities. Despite the progress, though, these robotic platforms still struggle to operate reliably under even mildly challenging conditions. Self-driving vehicles, for example, may come equipped with sophisticated sensors and detailed maps of the road ahead, and yet human drivers still have to take control in heavy rain or snow, or at night.

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