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October 8, 2020

Mimicing locusts could improve collision avoidance

Can a new collision detector for vehicles successfully mimic an avoidance neuron in locusts that allows the insects to fly in swarms without slamming into each other?

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Approach avoidance.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: locust swarm sound) You might have heard recently about locust plagues. Giant swarmclouds descend and within hours a lush farm field is turned to dust. But there is something remarkable about locusts. An internal system that keeps the swarm from banging and smashing into each other. Simple collision-avoidance. A team of NSF-funded researchers from Penn State thinks we humans could use something like that.

Sure, we already have collision detectors for self-driving vehicles, but they're big and heavy, and they're not perfect. The beauty of the locusts' built-in detector is it works from one single specialized nerve cell–that senses an approaching locust and performs a bit of fancy math to produce an escape response. Preventing collisions within a swarm of millions of locusts. (Sound effect: car crash sound)

To imitate how it works, the team created a nanoscale photodetector, combined with some programmable electronics. With a very small amount of energy, it can mimic the locusts' escape response. Right now, to dodge objects on a direct collision path, but the team is working out avoidance from any angle.

Cars, drones, robots -- the team sees it as a leap toward development of smart, task-specific, energy efficient, miniaturized collision-avoidance systems.

And low-cost. Or should I say, "lo-cust?"

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