Researchers from the US Air Force Research Laboratory have demonstrated that magnetic navigation techniques, such as those used by migratory birds, mammals, fish and insects, could be used to help autonomous vehicles navigate without maps or GPS.

The paper, ‘Bioinspired magnetoreception and navigation using magnetic signatures as waypoints’, published in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, describes how the researchers used computer simulations to investigate how animals take advantage of the earth’s magnetic properties to enable them to navigate.

“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 Brian Taylor of the US research laboratory.

The researchers created several closed loops around a series of goal locations within the software and demonstrated that magnetic forces are a viable navigation option for animals. Taylor also suggested that implementing the system in autonomous vehicles could enable them to navigate without external positioning aides, removing the need for maps or GPS in unmanned vehicles.

“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,” said Taylor.

The report also states that autonomous vehicles, which rely on magnetic forces to navigate may reduce cost, size, weight and power usage compared to other autonomous vehicles.

Taylor said: “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 or online setting where resources are limited.”