Swarms of locusts are not often associated with good omens, but when it comes to designing better vision for sophisticated computers like those inside self-driving cars, scientists say there’s an important lesson to be learned.
These insects can move together in massive swarms of millions of individuals without so much as a fender bender, thanks to a specialized neuron in their brains called the Lobula Giant Movement Detector (LGMD). By designing a small, energy-efficient device that mimics this skill, a team of mechanical engineers from Penn State hopes to build a vision system that effortlessly keeps self-driving cars from colliding on the road.
Such a system could prove a crucial next step towards improving the safety of these vehicles, leading us toward a future of highways full of snoozing commuters in autonomous vehicles.
Insects are a ready source of inspiration when it comes to designing simple, effective, flight or vision systems for robotics and autonomous vehicles. Researchers have even gone as far as to design personal VR environments for flies to study their behavior and design better drones.
“Locusts are just incredible. What these creatures can do is very humbling.”
Saptarshi Das, assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State and co-author of the study, published Monday in the journal Nature Electronics, argues that locusts are unique even among insects when it comes to their vision abilities.
“We are always looking for animals with unusual abilities, ones that do something better than humans,” said Das. “Insect vision is something people use regularly to design automatic systems… [s]o we started looking at how it works and, locusts are just incredible. What these creatures can do is very humbling.”