Lobster Navigation Inspires Researchers to Help You Find Your Way Around

Tuesday, July 24, 2012 by Gayle Bodge

Imagine you were dropped off in an unfamiliar place. How would you find your way home? Lucky for you – your Maine Gazetteer may be in your backpack or smart phone with GPS in your back pocket. But what about animals without our technology, how do they find their way home?

Researchers have found that animals can use all sorts of natural cues to navigate, such as landmarks and the stars. But what if an animal were relocated to an unfamiliar territory, how would it find its way home? Researchers tried this out on spiny lobsters. They relocated them to sites 8 to 23 miles north and south of where they were caught. Each time the lobsters started to head back in the direction of their capture site. This suggests that spiny lobsters can sense the earth’s magnetic fields and use these to navigate, just like we would use a compass! 

Cool, right? So how can this help us to navigate? There are lots of technologies to help us navigate outside, but none for indoors…yet! Researchers at the University of Oulu in Finland, inspired by the spiny lobster, have developed a technology that uses a smartphone’s built-in compass to read magnetic fields indoors. Each building, with its unique concrete and steel architecture, creates a distinct magnetic field. Combining a floor plan with magnetic fields creates an indoor positioning system. Stay tuned for a smart phone app that will help you to navigate around the mall, a museum, or even your school!

Can you think of any other technologies inspired by animals or the natural world?

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