What do locusts, neurons, robots and the movie Star Wars have in common?
The answer is: Doctor Claire Rind, a biologist and robotics expert at the University of Newcastle, England. Dr. Rind wanted to design a collision-avoidance system for cars. So she decided to investigate the collision-avoidance system of locusts.
Locusts have fairly simple eyes and brains but still manage to fly in dense swarms of many millions without bumping into each other. She hoped that by understanding how locusts managed this feat, she could design a robotic system based on their neural machinery.
Now here is where it gets a little wacky – she made locusts watch Star Wars while monitoring the reactions of their visual systems. Dr. Rind discovered that locusts have special neurons that respond specifically to looming objects – or objects moving straight toward the locust, like on-screen spaceships.
These movement-detector neurons distinguish between approaching and receding objects by the way the edges of the object's image seem to grow or shrink in their field of vision. Then Rind and her colleagues translated the locust's neural processing to a small robot with cameras for eyes and had it zoom through an obstacle course. The robot was able to avoid collisions 91% of the time!
Now a team of neurobiologists, engineers, and designers is working on an automatic collision avoidance system for cars. The so-called "Locust Project" uses the knowledge gained from Star Wars-watching locusts. One day your car may be able to avoid collisions with the speed and accuracy of flying locusts!