By Steve Frandzel
Seeking a way to improve the navigational ability of robots, Colin Comard and his Expo team turned to the animal world — specifically the bat’s remarkable ability to maneuver quickly and precisely using sonar.
“Bats have specialized anatomy and biology that allow them to navigate with echolocation,” said Comard, who is getting a degree in electrical and computer engineering. “We’re trying to use that evolutionary advantage for our own robots to help them navigate better.”
A sonar system emits short pulses of sound, which bounce off objects in their path and return an “echo” back to the sonar’s receiver. By measuring the time it takes for the reflected pulses to make the round trip (and accounting for the medium they’re traveling through), the system calculates the distance from objects. Bats take things a step further: they can translate the spread of angles at which echoes hit their ears into an exceptionally accurate map of their surroundings.
The team took plastic bat ears manufactured by a 3-D printer and hooked them to a sonar system that they designed and built. During a proof-of-concept experiment, they fired sonar pulses toward objects positioned at premeasured distances and angles, then compared the system’s distance and position computations with the actual coordinates.
The system worked as designed, but because the model bat ears are rigid, not flexible like those of a real bat, the signals got muddled a bit. “Our job was to design the system itself,” said Comard, adding that animal anatomy could form the basis of new options for robotic navigational systems. He envisions a day when such systems are integrated into self-driving cars. “Sonar could be used to sense incoming threats and trigger emergency systems, which might save lives,” he said.
Other team members
Seydou Yaogo, Electrical & Computer Engineering
Ilya Zhimanov, Electrical & Computer Engineering