The dance of the dung beetle provides clues to navigation and could lead to more sophisticated light-weight robots in the future. The beetles, which are found on all continents except Antarctica, feed on faeces but scientists are less interested in what they eat than how they move their dinner from one place to another.
LUND, SWEDEN (JANUARY 23, 2012) (REUTERS AND EMILY BAIRD) - Scientists studying the dung beetle say their dance provides crucial insights into navigation and could help in developing robots.
According to a recently published study, the dance, performed as the beetle moves away from the dung pile with its dung ball, is a mechanism to maintain the desired straight-line departure from the pile.
The authors of the study investigated the circumstances that cause the beetle to dance. They found that the beetles were most likely to perform the dance before moving away from the pile, upon encountering an obstacle, or if they have lost control of the ball, suggesting that the behavior was crucial for keeping the ball moving in a straight line.
"For us it seems that the beetles are using this dance to cope with situations when they've been disturbed so they want to roll in a straight line and when they can no longer do that or they fall into a hole, this dance allows them to get their bearings again so that they can keep rolling in a straight line," said the Emily Baird, of Lund University in Sweden, who has led the study.
The purpose of this dance, in which the beetle climbs to the top of the ball and rotates, had previously been unknown.
Such efficient navigation allows the beetle to quickly move away from the intense competition from other beetles at the dung pile.
The authors propose that the beetles store a compass reading of celestial cues during the dance, which they then use to guide their straight-line trajectory.
Baird said insects are being studied to find out how animals with small brains and very simple sensory systems are able to actually perform very complex tasks such as navigating through their world.
In the future, scientists believe the dung beetle's dance could prove influential in the development of autonomous robots. ne of the study's sponsors is the U.S. United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
"They are interested, like we are, in understanding how animals with very simple processes, very simple brains, are capable of doing complex tasks and if we can understand this perhaps we can develop models that can then be used in autonomous robots," Baird said.
The benefits of modelling autonomous robots based on insect movements, would be in systems that are small and lightweight.
"If we can develop models that we can put into autonomous robots, and we can develop systems that are small and that are lightweight, that are capable of navigating through environments that are unfamiliar and forever changing, so they are able to cope with disturbances as well," she said.
Baird says insects use vision to navigate and if that knowledge could be used in the development of a robot, it would result in both lightweight and light-sensitive robots.
"The interesting thing about insects is that they can use vision to navigate. So the dung beetles are just mainly relying on their visual system so they don't need any heavy sensors like modern robots and vehicles do to get around in their world and vision is very light-weight, it's simple and it doesn't require a lot of processing power or energy so if we can understand how we can use vision for orientation then it makes it much easier to develop autonomous robots for navigating through the world," she said, adding that vision is more reliable than GPS, laser and sonar.
The development of lightweight, autonomous robots is a topic of enormous interest in laboratories around the world.
"It can be very important - or in the future at least - applications can be for locating humans when there's been a natural disaster, for surveillance, for the sort of things where it's not safe to send humans in. If we can send robots that can go and investigate certain situations, if there's been an earthquake, who are capable of moving through the world then we don't have to send so many people into disaster situations that are dangerous for them," Baird said.
But Baird says it will take ten to twenty years before aspects of the research could be implemented into robots.