Autonomous Robots Navigate Like Rats

Rats have been finding their way around in human-built spaces for millennia. At the Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia, Michael Milford and his collaborators have spent the past 14 years honing a robot navigation system modeled on the brains of rats.


(Autonomous Robots Navigate Like Rats)

The lowly brown rat, by contrast, is a nimble navigator that has no problem finding its way around, under, over, and through the toughest spaces. When a rat explores an unfamiliar territory, specialized neurons in its 2-gram brain fire, or spike, in response to landmarks or boundaries. Other neurons spike at regular distances—once every 20 centimeters, every meter, and so on—creating a kind of mental representation of space [PDF]. Yet other neurons act like an internal compass, recording the direction in which the animal’s head is turned [PDF]. Taken together, this neural activity allows the rat to remember where it’s been and how it got there. Whenever it follows the same path, the spikes strengthen, making the rat’s navigation more robust.

So why can’t a robot be more like a rat?

I think that science fiction writers of past generations felt the same way, and used similar creatures to inspire their robot dreams. For example, Ray Bradbury wrote about robot mice in The Martian Chronicles:

Out of warrens in the wall, tiny robot mice darted. The rooms were acrawl with the small cleaning animals, all rubber and metal. They thudded against chairs, whirling their mustached runners, kneading the rug nap, sucking gently at hidden dust. Then, like mysterious invaders, they popped into their burrows. Their pink electric eyes faded. The house was clean.

Even earlier, Eric Frank Russell described golden shuttles in his classic 1941 short story The Mechanical Mice.

Via IEEE Spectrum. See also Why Rat-Brained Robots Are So Good at Navigating Unfamiliar Terrain.

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