Locust Swarming Could Accelerate Autonomous Drive Technology

Lessons drawn from the insect world could be used to advance the capabilities of driverless car technology.

That’s the view of university researchers who believe these lessons could revolutionize our experience of travel, transform our transport industries and greatly improve road safety. An international research project, coordinated by the University of Lincoln in the UK, is aiming to create a sensor system for collision detection in driverless cars inspired by the brain activity of locusts and crabs. Over the past four years the project has developed technology based on processes that underpin how these animals respond to looming objects.

Researchers have analyzed a special neuron within a locust brain that, in a matter of milliseconds, prevents large swarms of the species from colliding. Biological patterns such as this could be used to build a digital blueprint for sensor systems, enabling driverless vehicles to automatically detect and respond to obstructions in real time.

The project, named ‘Ultracept’, brings together 18 research teams and European SMEs each with specialized expertise, from neuroscientists and biologists to robotics experts and software specialists. Researchers are focusing on a fusion of visual perception, thermal mapping and sound in with the aim of helping the autonomous vehicles to respond to a range of adverse conditions, for example, wet road surfaces or low lighting.

They claim the brain-inspired collision detection system is cost effective and can be implemented within a small and compact chip. Outcomes of this research could also be applied in other areas such as mobile robots, healthcare, and the video games industry.
Shigang Yue, professor of computer science at the University of Lincoln, said: “Autonomous vehicles will have great benefits for modern society but there are several safety hurdles that we need to overcome first. The Ultracept project is aiming to solve the issue of collision detection, during daytime and night-time and within any weather conditions, including fog and rain. Ability to adapt to all weather conditions will be essential for the future of driverless cars.”

This project has also established connections between research institutions in Europe, East Asia and South America to significantly enhance the leadership of the European institutions in this emerging research field. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant.

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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