Drones could benefit from animals’ magnetic navigation techniques

16 May 2018

Sea turtles are known to use magnetic reception to navigate.

Research by the US Air Force has found that magnetic navigation techniques used by some animals could allow autonomous vehicles to find their way without maps or GPS.

The study, published today in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, used computer modelling to investigate the feasibility of animals using rare and/or unique combinations of magnetic properties as a type of waypoint or marker to help them navigate.

Dr Brian Taylor, from the US Air Force Research Laboratory, is the study’s author. He said: “The aims of this study were two-fold. First, to better understand how various animals use the Earth’s magnetic field to aid them in navigation; and second, to understand how those methods could be applied to help autonomous vehicles navigate without artificial external aides such as GPS.”

The study used a moment-to-moment approach to explore whether animals use rare and/or unique combinations of magnetic properties (or signatures) as a type of waypoint or marker to help them navigate.

“This concept has been put forward before through various experimental work with artificial magnetic fields, and simulation work that examines an animal’s motion in the context of ocean current motion and the magnetic field” said Dr Taylor.

Using these works as a foundation, Dr Taylor’s study has a navigation strategy try to migrate to a series of locations by trying to move towards magnetic signatures associated with these locations.

Based on previous work and Dr Taylor’s study, “the idea of using a combination of magnetic field properties as a navigational marker seems to be viable,” he said.

Dr Taylor used a software simulation to execute several closed loops around a series of goal locations, in a variety of environmental and system conditions. His findings provide insight into how an animal might navigate using magnetic signatures as waypoints, and other concepts that an engineered system might use for navigation.

“From an engineering perspective, the results show how a simple algorithm with little prior knowledge of its environment can successfully navigate to different specified points,” said Dr Taylor.

“If multimodal sensing is used for distinct phases of navigation (e.g., magnetoreception for midcourse navigation and vision for terminal guidance), this approach may provide a way for engineered systems to autonomously navigate without external positioning aides.

“Because the algorithm only has limited prior environment knowledge, a detailed map does not necessarily need to be created or maintained prior to a task or mission, which can save on resources, and is promising for situations where creating the map would be logistically difficult.”

This also means there is no need for a detailed map to be carried on board a vehicle or unmanned platform. This is advantages for unmanned platforms where cost, size, weight, and power are at a premium, and a more detailed map translates into more storage space and processing power.

Dr Taylor concluded: “Along the same lines of considering cost, size, weight, and power, the results show that, under the right circumstances, it may be possible for this type of algorithm to succeed without needing a high measurement frequency. This could ease the computational burden of running the algorithm in a real-time/online setting where resources are limited.”