The Unique 3D Vision of the Praying Mantis Could Help Robots Learn to See

The insects unique and powerful vision uses little brainpower.

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UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE

Not long ago, scientists at the University of Newcastle made the incredible discovery that praying mantis insects can see the world in 3D. To prove this, they used an extremely clever method. The researchers attached tiny 3D glasses to the insects, gluing them to their faces with beeswax, and showed them films on a screen. Just like in human 3D movies, the glasses would filter a separate image to each eye, to create an illusion of depth. The mantis subjects attacked the moving dot they saw in the videos, proving their ability to perceive depth.

But praying mantis vision is not only 3D, it's also different than any other 3D vision we've studied before. For humans, “an object moving upward in the left eye cannot be the same thing as an object moving downward in the right eye,” Vivek Nityananda, an animal behavior expert at University of Newcastle's Institute of Neuroscience, told the . Praying mantis eyes, on the other hand, pay more attention to movement, and less to the images matching up. When the mantis subjects saw an unmatched moving image, they still tried to attack it, Nityanada and his colleagues wrote in a paper published this week in . “For the mantis, it looks like [targets] have to be moving. But they don't have to be matching,” Nityananda said.

This is a totally new kind of 3D vision, and one that has exciting implications for the future of technology. A praying mantis obviously has much smaller and less complex brains than a human does. While our brains are made up of 85 billion interconnected neurons, the insects' brains have less than one million. The fact that they're still able to perceive vision in 3D means that they must use their few neurons in a unique way.

“Insects need less computational power to do the same thing that we do well,” Nityananda told the Post. This is intriguing for researchers who are trying to design robot vision. Computers, like insects, have vastly lower processing power than the human brain. So far, most autonomous vehicles rely on radar and GPS, among other sensors, to move around their environments. But if robots vision was enhanced like the mantis, their capabilities could be greatly increased, without a huge addition of processing power.

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