Volvo vs. Locusts

18 09 2008

Volvo is determined to build an injury-proof car by 2020, and the engineers working out the bugs developing so complex a vehicle hope to include a few as well. They’re studying the African locust to figure out how to make cars mimic the insect’s uncanny ability to avoid crashing into each other as they swarm.

The goal is to incorporate the African locust’s “sensory-input routing methodologies” in a car, making it smart enough to avoid hitting people. “If we could trace how the locust is able to avoid each other, maybe we could program our cars not to hit pedestrians,” says Jonas Ekmark, Volvo’s director of preventative safety.

The way Volvo sees it, there’s no difference between millions of locusts swarming across Africa and millions of people commuting to work each morning. If the bugs can avoid hitting each other, they ask, why can’t we?

“Locusts are quick-reacting and have reliable circuits, they do their computations against lots of background chatter, much like driving around town,” says Dr. Claire Rind, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in London who turned Volvo on to the idea.

Rind’s research at the Insect Vision Laboratory focuses on the behavioral patterns of locusts in flight and how it is that millions of them can swarm without hitting each other. Turns out the bugs’ visual input is transmitted directly to their wings, seemingly bypassing the brain in what Rind calls the Locust Principle. Volvo engineers first heard of Rind’s work in 2002 and set to work trying to adapt the Locust Principle to cars.

The work hinged on developing an algorithm that would mimic the insect’s ability to send visual stimuli directly to its wings, then applying it to a vehicle’s computerized safety features. Easier said than done. “As it turns out, the locust processing system is much more sophisticated than the hardware and software currently available,” Ekmark says. “In the end, technology was no match for nature.”

So for now the score remains Locusts 1, Volvo 0. But Volvo isn’t giving up. “We still have many years of research ahead to bring that small locust brain into our cars,” Ekmark says. “We have found a lowly locust has man beat, at least for now.”


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