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Rat Nav -

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TRANSCRIPT

NARRATION :

Robototic technology conjures up all sorts of science fiction fantasies. Robots that can do
anything from playing music, to being the ultimate companion. And the speed at which technology is
advancing may prove this isn't too far away.

Dr Maryanne Demasi :

In the future, robots will become an integral part of every household.

So now researchers are trying to develop smarter robots by taking some valuable lessons from the
humble lab rat.

NARRATION :

Simple mammals like rats store and recall visual cues that enable them to locate where they are.

But these little creatures are being tested to see how they navigate around an environment that is
constantly changing.

Dr François Windels :

We're actually making changes to get them a bit confused of their location. And we look how they
solve that problem.

NARRATION :

Researchers have discovered that specific cells in the rat's brain are involved in mapping tasks.
These "place cells" store information about the rat's location.

Dr François Windels :

So they integrate all this information to create two things. First a map of the environment and
then a representation of where they are on that map.

NARRATION :

Understanding navigation is essential for creating autonomous robots - ones that can think for
themselves and don't get confused when their environment changes.

Dr François Windels :

That confusion is a major problem in robotic and that's what we're trying to understand how rats
solve that problem to implement that in robots so they never get lost.

NARRATION :

Robotics engineer, Dr Michael Milford : is applying rat navigation to a new generation of
autonomous robots.

Dr Michael Milford :

We're very interested in using nature as inspiration to try and create intelligent capable robots.

And what we're able to do is create a software program which mimics to a certain extent what we
think parts of the rat brain are doing.

Dr Dr Michael Milford : :

We started with a model of the rat brain with experiments with robots in small rooms. We then
started to try and make it a bit more challenging so we started trying to get robots which could
map an entire office building for instance.

Dr Michael Milford :

We ran recently an experiment where we tried to map an entire city suburb, using just the sensory
input from a web camera.

Dr Maryanne Demasi :

Michael is attaching the webcam to the car and we're about to put the program through its paces.

NARRATION :

Visual information from the webcam is being fed into the software program - which has been modelled
on the rat's brain. It's calculating speed, logging turns and locating landmarks by matching pixel
patterns.

Dr Maryanne Demasi :

So as we drive this is actually creating its own map.

Dr Michael Milford :

Yeah, it's using information from the web camera to sketch out a route of where we're going in the
environment.

Dr Maryanne Demasi :

And it seems like the map changes?

Dr Michael Milford :

Yeah, the map takes into account new information as it becomes available and corrects itself to
make it as accurate as possible.

Dr Michael Milford :

The result that we got to our knowledge was at least as good as any of the traditional mathematical
robotic systems. And up until this point in time, none of the biological inspired systems had ever
mapped an area much larger than a, a room of a building. So it was a big step forward.

NARRATION :

So why not just use a GPS with a pre-programmed map?

Dr Michael Milford :

If you have to manually specify a map for a robot that really reduces its usability. What you'd
ideally like a robot to be able to do is for it to explore itself, the entire home and learn where
everything is for itself.

NARRATION :

Understanding how a rat navigates can help scientists to design a robot that can find its own way
around a changing environment.

Dr Michael Milford :

I think this melding of nature and artificial robots is a very interesting place to be. And I'd
really like to see this becoming a sort of widespread technology over the next 10 or 20 years.