For several years the European Space Agency (ESA) has been working on biomimicry projects for space applications. Everyone interested in space-related science and biomimicry should take a look at the project website of the ESA’s Advanced Concept Team. Here I will try to summarize some of the projects that, in my opinion, are the most interesting ones to mention. For more projects and details take a look at the official website of ESA.
Due to long travel times in space, closed-cycle life support systems are required that could be optimized by lowering the astronaut’s energy consumption. The researchers at ESA are therefore trying to learn more about hibernation in animals to see whether these principles can eventually be applied to astronauts on long term space missions in order to lower their consumption of air, water and food. Hibernating animals such as hedgehogs or the arctic ground squirrel are very interesting models to learn more about the mechanisms of hibernation in nature. For instance, the arctic ground squirrel is able to set its body temperature to 32° F (freezing point) during winter. Scientists are still not sure how the arctic ground squirrel can hibernate at such low temperatures but they believe that the so-called A1 adenosine receptor plays an important role in this. For more details take a look at this recently published article in the Washington Post.
Jumping spider vision:
Some jumping spiders are known to have the best vision among invertebrates. This vision aids them during hunting expeditions when the distance of the prey has to be estimated accurately. Therefore, jumping spiders only use one lens with several photoreceptor layers. Light can only be focused on one of the two deepest layers. When light is focused on one of the two deepest layers the image appears blurry on the other layer. It is expected that the amount of blurriness on the one receptor layer is used for depth estimation. A closer look at this blur-to-distance mapping mechanism could inspire depth-from-defocus (DFD) computer vision algorithms useful for distance sensors used in autonomous spacecraft descent, for example. Other application fields could be optical sensors for formation flying and swarm behavior. Such a system could also be used to assist other existing technologies such as SONAR. Since only one lens plus sensors would be required it is expected that such a system would be very energy efficient and last a long time since no mechanical parts are involved in the design.
Tracking of perceptual saliency:
In space robots usually take large amounts of images that have to be sent to ground stations for analysis. The large distance between the robot and the unit analyzing the collected images causes transmission delays. Thus, a real-time analysis is not possible. Also, the storage of large amounts of high definition images might cause data storage problems. Therefore, it would be helpful if the robot itself could evaluate the scientific content of an image taken. Algorithms have to be developed that let the robot identify interesting features in images. Therefore, the robot could be trained using human gaze data collected though an eye tracker. This would allow the robot to learn to take a look at surroundings as if through a human eye.
Further ongoing projects as well as interesting past projects are summarized on the official website of the ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team.