WHEN humans made their first attempts at flight, they copied birds, and after much trial and error, powered flight had been successfully trialled by the 20th century.

Now Scottish researchers are looking to insects, the most populous species on the planet, for inspiration as they attempt to solve a problem that’s baffling scientists – just how do you programme a robot to navigate?

The research by Edinburgh University scientists into insect brains has just been showcased at an international conference, the 11th Forum of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) in Berlin.

The team has built computer algorithms to better understand insect neural circuits before creating robots to mimic how these circuits work.

Edinburgh University stated: “Their findings could aid the development of robots to carry out mundane or repetitive tasks, such as spraying crops or clearing litter.”

One example of these robots is a mobile phone on wheels. Using an in-built camera and compass, the team can run programmes in the insect’s natural environment.

This helps to examine how closely the machine mimics the insect’s behaviour. Such robots can record insect eye views through a field of vegetation and use its memory of these views to follow the same route on its next journey.

Using the compass and the speed of the wheels, the robot can keep track of the direction and distance it has moved from its home position and use this to go directly home.

The university added: “By copying insects, it is hoped that control of robot for simple tasks can be made cheaper, simpler and more robust.

For example, a group of insect-like robots could gather rubbish and bring it to a single location, in the way that ants bring food to their nest. Or a robot could move around a field of crops, dispensing fertiliser or pesticides.

According to the paper presented to FENS, it can be “illuminating to compare engineered and biological systems”.

Author Barbara Webb of the School of Informatics said: “Insects have tiny brains, but they navigate extremely well.

“It is difficult to measure neural activity in an insect flying or running around its natural environment. Building robot models helps us bridge the gap between brain and behaviour.”

FENS’ 12th forum will take place in Glasgow in July 2020.