Learning Drone Navigation Lessons From Bats

Kenneth Sebesta shows us how bats navigate during an emergence and how we can apply those characteristics to drone swarming.

Kenneth Sebesta tells us that there is much we can learn from bats. Each bat is autonomous and focuses mainly on its own welfare. In his TEDx Talk What Can Bats Teach Us About Drones? Sebesta shows a bat emergence video and explains the biological characteristics that control bat physiology and flight.

Bats have a natural agility and navigation system that helps them not just when hunting or foraging for food, but also when operating within a large swarm of other bats. Sebesta frames the bat’s situation as chaotic. Hundreds or thousands of bats in the vicinity reduce visuals (or sonar ‘vision’), screeching bats are limiting audio cues, and bats are traveling at their maximum possible speed. Collision avoidance is an assumed part of bat behavior regardless of these limiting factors.

Sebesta contrasts this natural directional ability to drones. He says that people have varying opinions about drones but he sees them as a robotic arm, an extension of ourselves able to move objects in places we couldn’t previously reach.

Using drones might allow small family owned businesses to have the same distribution benefits that a Walmart enjoys. Imagining a trucking or shipping scale drone delivery system is where Sebesta’s big ideas come into play. He says that math is missing from our current drone swarming technology, and that we should be able to swarm tens of thousands of drones as easily as bats can coordinate themselves.

Bats don’t need to spend time thinking about navigation. Their brains are thinking about blood circulation, breathing, muscle movement, hunting prey and avoiding predators. Sebesta breaks down the problem of swarm control into internal and external clutter. External clutter are things that don’t act like you, making it harder for you to predict their behavior.

Thermal imaging attached to a drone (called the Bat Copter) allowed to see the swarm from a bat’s point of view, and understand how a bat positions itself relative to other bats. Humans think mostly in two dimensional movement but bats can move up and down around each other. Sebesta uses the example of marathon runners that start out in a massive clump but find their own space as the race occurs as a way to think about human two dimensional navigation. My experiences standing at a concert watching different people move around to find better visual ground or be closer to their friends would apply here as well.

This is a great TED Talk because the ideas and the possibility are open but the end isn’t written yet. Kenneth Sebesta shows us the data he is collecting and the end vision of a drone delivery network but the work to get to the end state isn’t yet in place.