Would you believe that scientists have been studying insects to help them design a new lifesaving technology? I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. A certain neuron located behind the eyes of a locust releases bursts of electricity whenever something comes directly at it. Well, studying these energetic impulses has been useful in developing a better car collision avoidance system.
“There just isn’t a collision avoidance system which is good enough and fast enough to be effective in a suburban situation.”
For over fifteen years Dr. Claire Rind of the University of New Castle upon Tyne has been studying the navigational system of locusts.
“The locust would use its collision avoidance pathways, when it’s flying in a swarm or when it’s sitting on the ground, with a lot of other locusts and it’s approached by an aerial predator. It’s a very useful system to copy if we want to be able to have a collision avoidance system which is working in the urban environment where you have a lot of clutter.”
Using the information that she’s gathered from studying locust neurons, Dr. Rind has worked with a team of engineers to build a robot that can swerve away from approaching objects.
“We can look at what stimuli are exciting the neurons, so that we can build up a big picture of the exact sorts of computations done by these neurons. And we knew to such an extent that we were able to build a model which behaved in the same way as the actual locust. And that was one of the very exciting stages in the research — to find that we’d put enough into the model to have it respond only with approaching objects and not to receding ones.”
Dr. Rind predicts that within ten years cars will be equipped with a collision avoidance system based on her research with locusts. Pulse of the Planet is presented with support provided by The National Science Foundation.