Earth’s magnetic field could provide drone navigation alternative to satellite GPS

Magnetic navigation techniques used by animals could allow drones to find their way without maps or satellite navigation.

Research by the US Air Force published in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, used computer modelling to investigate how animals used magnetic properties as a type of waypoint.

Study author Dr Brian Taylor of the US Air Force Research Laboratory said the aims of this study were two-fold: to better understand how animals use the Earth’s magnetic field to aid in navigation; and to understand how those methods could be applied to help autonomous vehicles navigate without artificial external aides such as GPS.

“This concept has been put forward before through various experimental work with artificial magnetic fields, and simulation work that examines an animal’s motion in the context of ocean current motion and the magnetic field,” said Dr Taylor.

Using software simulation to execute several closed loops around a series of goal locations, in a variety of environmental and system conditions, Dr Taylor’s findings show how an animal might navigate using magnetic signatures as waypoints, and other concepts that an engineered system might use for navigation.

“From an engineering perspective, the results show how a simple algorithm with little prior knowledge of its environment can successfully navigate to different specified points,” said Dr Taylor.

“If multimodal sensing is used for distinct phases of navigation (e.g., magnetoreception for midcourse navigation and vision for terminal guidance), this approach may provide a way for engineered systems to autonomously navigate without external positioning aides.

“Because the algorithm only has limited prior environment knowledge, a detailed map does not necessarily need to be created or maintained prior to a task or mission, which can save on resources, and is promising for situations where creating the map would be logistically difficult.”

Dr Taylor concluded: “Along the same lines of considering cost, size, weight, and power, the results show that, under the right circumstances, it may be possible for this type of algorithm to succeed without needing a high measurement frequency. This could ease the computational burden of running the algorithm in a real-time/online setting where resources are limited.”

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