Use the force – Locust

Tomorrow’s cars may be able to automatically avoid collisions thanks to a Newcastle University experiment in which locusts are forced to watch scenes from Star Wars.

Locusts are adept at avoiding predators and in order to study how their eyes and nerve cells reacted to fast-moving objects, Dr Claire Rind strapped them to plasticine armchairs, wired up their brains, and bombarded them with images from George Lucas’ sci-fi epic.

Locusts possess a large nerve cell in their brains known as the Giant Lobular Movement Detector, which responds when it detects an object hurtling towards it.

By inserting probes under each locust’s skin, Rind’s team measured the detector’s electrical discharges. With x-wing fighters heading straight for the locust, it’s detectors sent out signals to make it swoop away. In this way, the locust’s avoidance signalling systems were unravelled.

The scientists have developed a robot with an electronic visual system based on that of a locust, enabling it to behave like a swarming insect and avoid collisions with objects.The robot has a low resolution camera that closely imitates the locust’s grainy vision. Signals from the camera are processed by a neural network to provide ‘edge detection’ before reaching the robot’s movement detector, which is designed to respond in the same way as a locust’s.

Rind hopes the robot’s neural network program, which mimics part of the locust’s brain, will be the basis of a collision-avoidance system for cars. The conventional approach to creating such systems involves using radar or infrared detectors, and requires very heavy-duty computer processing. Insects, however, manage to dodge objects despite poor vision and basic brains.

Nigel Clarke, principal engineer at Jaguar’s radar applications research unit in Coventry, has been keeping a close eye on Rind’s progress. ‘We certainly think there’s a great deal of mileage in using techniques that the brain uses to calculate these things, such as detecting moving objects in a scene,’ he said.