Flinders University scientists use biology from insects to build robots with a brain

Flinders University scientists use biology from insects to build robots with a brain

Scientists at a South Australian university are using biology from insects to build robots with a brain – technology that could become a game changer for police, defence and national security.

“I’m giving a robot a brain so it can understand its environment,” said Flinders University associate professor for autonomous systems, Dr Russell Brinkworth. 

His biologically-inspired robots have the ability to not just take a picture of the world, but interpret the surrounding environment and adapt accordingly.

“Our current robots work well in structured environments that don’t change. That sounds complex – but they’re all the same,” Dr Brinkworth said.

“When cars are set on an assembly line, all the cars are the same, the parts are the same, they’re all in the same environment, same lighting, same size.

“But real life isn’t like that – there’s always changes, so we need to build robots that can adapt to the environment, rather than forcing the environment to adapt to the robots.”

Flinders University scientists use biology from insects to build robots with a brain
Dr Russell Brinkworth studied the biology of insects to create a robot that can understand the vision it captures from a camera.(ABC News: Michael Clements)

By studying the biology of insects, such as flies and dragonflies, Dr Brinkworth “reverse engineered” the process that goes on biologically to create a robot that can understand the vision it is capturing from a camera.

“The way that insects interpret the world is very similar to the way primates and even humans interpret the world. We just do it on a larger scale,” he said.

He said his robots can pinpoint a drone or surveillance balloon from kilometres away, far advancing the technology of current cameras.

“If you look at security footage and there’s someone wearing a hoodie and they’ve got their face covered – it’s hard to understand what’s going on based on the camera footage,” he said.

“But if you were standing there, and you were looking at them, that shadow wouldn’t fool your eye because your eye is sophisticated enough to be able to extract out the information hiding in the shadows.

“That’s the sort of cameras we’re building.”

A black robot on a table surrounded by wires
The robot can understand the vision it captures from a camera, far advancing the technology of current cameras.(:ABC News)

Dr Brinkworth said the cameras would be vital for law enforcement, defence and national security in the future, but could also be used for conservation, such as recording the density of koalas in a national park.

“You’d have to send somebody out to walk through that forest to do a manual count, or you send a drone overhead with an operator,” he said.

“They will miss quite a few.

“What we’ve been able to do is design a system that is far more accurate and doesn’t rely on human judgement.”

He said his camera can more accurately pick out where the koalas are because it could “break the different types of camouflage” created by the dense branches and leaves.

“It can find animals hiding in forests, it can find all sorts of things that are camouflaged to regular camera views because it’s able to look for, and enhance, the very subtle differences across different wavelengths of light.”

A man in a shirt and tie sitting on a desk with a computer on the right and paperwork in front of him
Dr Malcolm Davis says we need robots to be able to understand their environment and make their own decisions.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Dr Malcolm Davis said studying biology was important to advance technology such as robots.

“We want them to be flexible and in effect, to be able to operate as humans do,” he said.

“The battle space is a complex, rapidly changing environment – we can’t afford to have autonomous systems or robots, essentially requiring human oversight.

“We need them to be able to understand their environment and make their own decisions.

“There’s obviously a Terminator mindset here that if we give robots too much control, then they turn on us [but] I don’t think that’s likely.

“If we’re talking about artificial intelligence, if we’re talking about advanced robotic systems, then it’s humans that are creating those systems.

“We would build into those machines an understanding or basis for behaviour based around our approaches to things like international law, humanitarian law, the laws of armed conflict.”

Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery.
Dr Brinkworth says the future applications of the robot are in science fiction territory. (CBS Interactive)

Dr Brinkworth said the technology could one day be used to potentially build an eye for someone who was blind.

“If somebody was blind, you can’t just put a camera on them, you have to find a way of giving that information to the person,” he said.

He said in order to do that, the way the brain communicates needs to be replicated by better understanding how the visual systems of animals work.

“We could augment existing visual systems and replace missing parts and communicate that information in the brain’s native language back to the brain,” he said.

“This is very science fiction – it doesn’t exist just yet. The interface between technology and biology is a frontier.

“The augmentation side of technology moving into biology is a bit Borg-like, if we’re looking for Star Trek.

“It is very far in the future. But the future starts now, you must start somewhere.

“If you want to invest in a future where giving sight back to the blind is important, than you’ve got to start.”