Biohybrid systems are often thought of as the result of biomimetics or bio-inspired approaches to find novel solutions for outstanding engineering problems. Advanced capabilities in the military, civilian or medical domains based on biological design principles – with and without AI support – have already started to generate impact on society, specifically in the medical sector when it comes to brain-machine or brain-computer interfaces. Best examples include prosthetic limb control in amputees, but also some sensory augmentations to enhance vision, hearing and haptics, potentially beyond the natural human performance.
The conventional view is, that biological principles inform engineering. But the interdisciplinary venture between modern life-sciences and engineering is by no means a one-way affair. It often sparks a spiral of progress where advances in the understanding of biological design principles spins off novel engineering solutions which may, in turn, enable the development of novel, often more effective, tools to study biological systems. For instance, to test hypotheses and model predictions based on experimental and theoretical work on animals, autonomous robotic systems provide an excellent platform for proof-of-concept studies either confirming or rejecting ideas on how biological systems achieve complex sensorimotor control tasks. Micro air vehicles (MAVs or drones) make a good example. Their flight states may be sensed by inertial measurement units, which are commonly used in the engineering domain to produce feedback for aerodynamic stability, complemented by bio-inspired – or better, bioprincipic – vision sensors which add substantial robustness to attitude control in the low dynamic range.
Another approach is to use autonomous robotic systems to study biological sensorimotor control design in ways that are not possible by methodologies applied in natural sciences. A limiting factor in studies of the neuronal mechanisms underlying sensorimotor control often is that the animals under study have to be fixed in place to enable stable measurements of nerve cells involved in sensing and the generation of control signal driving the various motor systems. Under natural conditions, all sensory systems would be stimulated together and the signals of several modalities are integrated before they control the behaviour.
Over the last couple of years we have developed and advanced the capabilities of a fly-robot-interface, FRI, where neuronal signals of interneurons measuring visual image shift, optic flow, are used to avoid collisions of a 2-wheeled robot manoeuvring in an experimental arena. Using this biohybrid experimental platform under closed-loop conditions, we found that the signal amplitude of fly optic flow processing interneurons depends linearly on the distance to visual objects when the FRI moves on an oscillatory trajectory with a fixed turning radius. Our finding enables us to use the FRI for studies on the significance of active vision as well as the integration of signals from different modalities sensing air flow, (yaw) rotation rates and visual motion. Adding to the FRI platform a device for monitoring the intended movements of the fly by measuring the wing beat amplitude difference between the left and right-wing, allows us to address yet another unsolved problem in animal and human sensorimotor control: How are goal-directed behaviours possible given that stabilization reflexes are permanently active during locomotion.
In my presentation, I will review earlier work as well as recent approaches to improve the capability of our FRI and discuss possible future directions towards a bio-hybrid system