Many insects navigate by integrating the distances and directions travelled on an outward path, allowing direct return to the starting point. Fundamental to the reliability of this process is the use of a neural compass based on external celestial cues. Here we examine how such compass information could be reliably computed by the insect brain, given realistic constraints on the sky polarisation pattern and the insect eye sensor array. By processing the degree of polarisation in different directions for different parts of the sky, our model can directly estimate the solar azimuth and also infer the confidence of the estimate.
We introduce a method to correct for tilting of the sensor array, as might be caused by travel over uneven terrain. We also show that the confidence can be used to approximate the change in sun position over time, allowing the compass to remain fixed with respect to ‘true north’ during long excursions. We demonstrate that the compass is robust to disturbances and can be effectively used as input to an existing neural model of insect path integration. We discuss the plausibility of our model to be mapped to known neural circuits, and to be implemented for robot navigation.