Lampetra Project

Concept and objectives

The overall objective of the research is to develop and use lamprey/salamander bioinspired artefacts with a twofold aim:

1. to conduct neuroscientific studies on vertebrate mechanisms involved in the neural control of goal-directed locomotion;
2. to find new solutions for high-performance artificial locomotion in terms of fast-response, adaptability, reliability, energy efficiency, control, going beyond current artificial locomotion both in the field of control and in the one of hardware. In particular the aim is to investigate locomotion that is continuously modulated for implementing a rich variety of behaviours.

The original approach towards this goal is to develop and use bioinspired lamprey/salamander artefacts for conducting neuroscientific studies and for performing bio-hybrid experiments on vertebrate mechanisms involved in the neural control of goal-directed locomotion, bringing new scientific knowledge in this field.

Animals as an extraordinary source of inspiration for engineering and technology

The continuous progress in understanding the biological world is bringing a comprehension of the neural mechanisms that allow animals to move around in an ever changing milieu. These mechanisms have been refined by evolution over millions of years. Animals are characterized by an extraordinary performance, in terms of speed, robustness, and plasticity, if compared to the attempts of replicating such functionalities in artificial systems.

New hypotheses and models on the mechanisms governing animal capabilities are being proposed by neuroscientists in simple vertebrates (e.g. lamprey, salamander), easier to study but still representative of more evolved animals. In fact, the organization of the locomotor system is to a large extent conserved through vertebrate phylogeny, giving fundamental clues to the understanding of more complex mammalian nervous systems.

Use of biomimetic artefacts as platforms for neuro-biological studies

Animal experiments able to validate organism-level theories are difficult to design due to a variety of ethical and methodological factors. In order to validate theories on the whole living system in its surrounding medium in the field of goal directed locomotion, physical artefacts provide a powerful addition to the methodological repertoire.

An essential part of the proposed approach is to interface such an artefact with the real animal in order to tune internal parameters of the sensorimotor hardware in a bio-hybrid way and to explore goal-directed locomotion.

One major objective of the project is to analyse the lamprey locomotor system through further modelling and to implement these biological and computational models into a bio-mimetic physical model of the lamprey based on a multisegmental structure with actuators in each segment (myotome). These actuators will have muscle-like properties.

Another major objective will be to explore agile walking in addition to swimming, using the salamander as animal model. In fact, while being a good example of an amphibious animal capable of swimming and walking, the salamander can be seen as a lamprey with legs and its body can be artificially replicated by simply adding limb modules to a lamprey-like artefact.

Expected Project results

Expected results arising from this project are twofold: advances in neuroscience on the one hand and, on the other hand, in technology and engineering, where novel, high-performance artefacts could be designed and fabricated if they succeed in truly replicating their natural counterparts.

Neuroscience provides information of two types: detailed quantitative data and general principles. This can be transformed into mathematical models which can serve as the bridge between biology and technology.

From a technological point of view interesting developments are expected in the field of control. Assessed methods are not available from literature, where exploitable results involve systems that are not as redundant as in biology and where components are much different from their biological counterpart. This bioinspired approach also involves the combination of digital and analogue circuits (in fact, hardware processing at local/neuronal level can greatly simplify higher level computation).
© 2009 Lampetra consortium