Dragonfly vision to help driverless cars predict traffic movement

By / 25th of July, 2017
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A DRAGONFLY’S ability to predict the movement of its prey is being harnessed to improve the way driverless cars manoeuvre in traffic.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide in South Australia and Lund University in Sweden have found a neuron in dragonfly brains that anticipates movement.

The properties of the target-detecting neurons are being replicated in a small robot in Adelaide to test its potential for artificial vision systems used in driverless cars. 

The study of the neuron, known as CSTMD1, is published today in the journal eLife.

Research supervisor and lecturer in the University of Adelaide’s Medical School Steven Wiederman said the new discovery would have an impact on driverless cars and other robotic vision systems.

“It is one thing for artificial systems to be able to see moving targets but tracing movement so it can move out of the way of those things is a really important aspect to self-steering vehicles,” Dr Wiederman said.

“What we found was the neuron in dragonflies not only predicted where a target would reappear, it also traced movement from one eye to the other – even across the brain hemispheres.

“This is also evident in cluttered environments where an object might be difficult to distinguish from the background.”

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The University of Adelaide's autonomous robot testing its sensing techniques derived from dragonflies. 

The research team, led by University of Adelaide PhD student Joseph Fabian, found that target-detecting neurons increased dragonfly responses in a small “focus” area just in front of the location of a moving object being tracked.

If the object then disappeared from the field of vision, the focus spread forward over time, allowing the brain to predict where the target was most likely to reappear.

The neuronal prediction was based on the previous path along which the prey had flown.

Dr Wiederman said this phenomenon was not only evident when dragonflies hunted small prey but when they chased after a mate as well.

This is similar to when a human judges the trajectory of a ball as it is thrown to them, even when it is moving against the backdrop of a cheering crowd.

The research project is the first time a target-tracking model inspired by insect neurophysiology has been implemented on an autonomous robot and tested under real-world conditions

South Australia has a history of involvement with autonomous car research and in 2015 held the first driverless car trials in the Southern Hemisphere.

It hosts a number of leading autonomous car companies including Cohda Wireless and its innovative V2X (Vehicle to everything) technology and RDM Group, which opened its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Adelaide earlier this year.

Researcher Zahra Bagheri from the University of Adelaide said there was growing interest in the use of robots for applications in industry, health and medical services, and entertainment products.

“However, our robots are still far behind the accuracy, efficiency and adaptability of the algorithms which exist in biological systems,” she said.

“Nature provides a proof of concept that practical real-world solutions exist, and with millions of years of evolution behind them, these solutions are highly efficient,” she said.

A study on the implementation of CSTMD1 into the robot was published earlier this month in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

The research project is an international collaboration funded by the Swedish Research Council, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and STINT, the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education.

Previously, Dr Wiederman and his research team demonstrated that bees had vision up to 30 per cent better than previous studies suggested.

This finding has also been beneficial in improving the vision of robots.

South Australia’s capital Adelaide has three long-standing public universities, Flinders UniversityUniversity of South Australia and the University of Adelaide, each of which are consistently rated highly in the international higher education rankings.

Key contacts

Dr Steven Wiederman ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher School of Medical Sciences University of Adelaide
61 8 8313 8067 steven.wiederman@adelaide.edu.au