Super-fast flying machines defy body logic

November 9, 2018, Flinders University
Super-fast flying machines defy body logic
Associate Professor Karin Nordström's research group uses hoverflies and other insects to understand how the nervous system codes visual information. Credit: Flinders University

The size of a tiny insect brain bears no comparison to the super capacity of its killer instinct and flying skills and speed.

Just like in humans, the brains of hoverflies and even tiny predatory robberflies have hundreds of thousands of neurones which give them survival abilities for hunting and pollen collecting unparalleled even in the most advanced human technologies.

And just like humans, the descending nerve (or 'spinal cord') in flies narrows down to channel only a few hundred neurones at a time.

So how can these extraordinarily rapid insect responses to visual and other sensory cues occur when the body's pre-motor pathways run into such a bottleneck linking messages from the brain to the wings and body?

New research from insect neuroscience specialists at Flinders University and the University of Minnesota and Cambridge University is looking to unlock this mystery.

Funded by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research and an Australian Research Council Discovery grant, the collaborative research efforts are looking for future directions in neuroscience from the study of highly advanced flying insects, such as predatory robberflies and dragonflies, and non-predatory hoverflies and bees.

The latest study, analysing the descending nerve (which runs along the ventral of underside of the insect) in flies, will lead to more research to mimic the response time in predatory and non-predatory insects in their natural environment in the wild.

Credit: Flinders University
"Humans are quite poor at responding to small stimuli in a busy or cluttered field of vision, such as catching a ball while running in a forest," says Associate Professor Karin Nordström, from the Neuroscience Centre at Flinders University's College of Medicine and Public Health.

"So how can flies see each other in similar environments? Clearly, there is something in their evolution that still enables incredibly fast responses in their behaviour when their brain registers a trigger (such as pollen, a potential mate or a yummy meal)."

As well as recording responses in the , the researchers are also looking at how the animals' neurones dictate behaviour and translate into their super sophisticated capabilities.

Research findings will help to inform future technologies such as driverless cars and more efficient modes of air travel.

"This latest study is also fascinating because the tiny robberfly and larger (bee-size) hoverfly have very different evolutionary coding but very similar descending nerve cords, so we are now working on understanding the common blueprint for target detection," Associate Professor Nordström says.

"Indeed, animal brains can be seen as biological computing machines, and many current machine learning tools, including deep neural networks, are heavily inspired by using a similar architecture with many layers of non-linear interactions."

The paper, "Integration of Small- and Wide-Field Visual Features in Target-Selective Descending Neurons of both Predatory and Non-Predatory Dipterans" has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Explore further: To flee or not to flee: How the brain decides what to do in the face of danger

More information: Sarah Nicholas et al. Integration of Small- and Wide-Field Visual Features in Target-Selective Descending Neurons of both Predatory and Non-Predatory Dipterans, The Journal of Neuroscience (2018). DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1695-18.2018

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sassifras69
4.7 / 5 (6) Nov 09, 2018
We do overlook the remarkable cognitive ability needed by insects to survive. They process so much raw data at incredible speeds and can perform extremely precise actions with incredible accuracy. I often like to remind myself that every animal alive today has been evolving for the exact same amout of time that humans have been. We are all evolved from the same single celled organisms of ancient Earth.
arcmetal
5 / 5 (3) Nov 09, 2018
We do overlook the remarkable cognitive ability needed by insects to survive. They process so much raw data at incredible speeds and can perform extremely precise actions with incredible accuracy. I often like to remind myself that every animal alive today has been evolving for the exact same amout of time that humans have been. We are all evolved from the same single celled organisms of ancient Earth.

We tend to overlook the amount of time that has passed during the evolution of all of life on this planet. We have a tough time comprehending the passage of a thousand years. How are we to comprehend the passage of a million, or a billion years?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Nov 09, 2018
"Funded by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research" -Yeah I've always felt that it would be far simpler to use biological platforms as basic platforms and add electronics, rather than building drones and robots from scratch. But just how far up the evolutionary tree should we climb?

Using flies, dragonflies, birds even, might be acceptable. Rodents even. But imagine that instead of SpotMini by Boston Dynamics, what if you used a greyhound with the same totally dependable programmability, with a manipulator arm or a weapon on its back?

Wouldn't this be preferable in so many ways? Cyborg animals might be less creepy than machines.

"(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of scientists funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have implanted miniature neural and muscle stimulation systems into beetles to enable their flight to be remotely controlled."

-Cats that always do what you tell them to. Who wouldn't go for that?
Da Schneib
not rated yet Nov 09, 2018
Insects are pretty sophisticated compared with computer algorithms. I expect we'll get a lot from their evolved algorithms before we start trying to deal with reptile algorithms, much less mammal algorithms. We have a long way to go. Try killing flies with a swatter.
rrwillsj
not rated yet Nov 10, 2018
It is amusing to contemplate how much Human cognitive power is needed to successfully swat a fly.
adam_russell_9615
not rated yet Nov 11, 2018
My first guess would be 'muscle memory'. Not all actions are in response to orders coming from the brain.
rrwillsj
not rated yet Nov 11, 2018
thanks adam, for explaining the brainless fools who pulled the lever for trumpenella!

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