for National Geographic News
Locusts are commonly associated with plagues, food shortages, and death. But for a team of European scientists, the grasshopper-like insects are inspiring a technology that may save lives by preventing hundreds of thousands of car crashes.
"Locusts are good at avoiding collisions," said team member Claire Rind, a biologist at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. "We should learn from a species that is good at the task."
The insects migrate in swarms as dense as 80 million adults per square kilometer (0.4 square mile) yet avoid crashing into each other and the mouths of predatory birds.
Jack Ference is an electronics engineer with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees a U.S.-led crash-avoidance initiative. He said approximately 3.6 million cars are damaged each year as a result of rear-ending the car in front of them, swiping another car while changing lanes, or running off the road.
Upward of half of these wrecks could be prevented with effective crash-avoidance technologies, which the automobile industry views as the future of car safety. "We've spent as much as we can to make cars more crashworthy. Now's the time to do something more active," Ference said.
Together with colleagues from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, the National Center of Microelectronics in Seville, Spain, and the Volvo Car Corporation in Göteborg, Sweden, Rind is developing crash-avoidance technology based on locusts' navigational skills.
Locusts, which can consume their own weight in food each day, have a large neuron called the locust giant movement detector (LGMD) located behind their eyes. The LGMD releases bursts of energy whenever a locust is on a collision course with another locust or a predatory bird.
A few years ago Rind and her colleagues studied the activity of the LGMD as locusts watched action scenes from the movie Star Wars. The team found that the LGMD releases more energy when something is coming directly at the locust.
These spikes of energy, called action potentials, prompt the locusts to take evasive action. The entire process from motion detection to reaction takes about 45 millisecondsor 45 thousandths of a second.
"Locusts, like most insects, can see many more images per second than we do. This means they can react in time to things that are approaching very rapidly and so make their escape before collision," Rind said.
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