Clever penguins could make smart cars smarter

All hail the venerable penguin. Aside from their superior means of transit (waddling) and sleek monochrome aesthetic, the majestic birds have recently played an important role in the development of smart cars.

With the rise of the smart car comes a smattering of cumbersome new problems, such as optimal ways to ensure the safe organisation of code. And as the technology gets more innovative, so do the solutions, with experts turning to an unlikely source of inspiration… hungry penguins.

Professor Yiannis Papadopoulos, a computer scientist at the University of Hull, has developed a penguin-inspired testing system, explaining that penguins’ millions of years of evolutionary prowess has helped them develop efficient hunting strategies. It was remarkable, he opined, that the social birds could sustain “this kind of big society, given that together they need a vast amount of food”, concluding that “There must be something special about their hunting strategy.”

That something special, it turns out, is the communal action penguins take during hunting, electing to forage in groups and synchronise their dives to catch fish. Upon registering the density of various shoals, penguins reconfigure their groups to ensure more efficient energy expenditure during hunting expeditions.

Professor Papadopoulos explains that the solution has “generic elements which can be abstracted and be used to solve other problems.” In this case, testing systems for code arrangement emulate the optimal way in which penguins zone in on their aquatic prey, in turn “determining the integrity of software components needed to reach the high safety requirements of a modern car.”

In other words, the foraging behaviour of penguins is applied to the discovery of optimal software structure for smart cars. Indeed, as disjointed as it may sound, engineers have been sourcing problem-solving inspiration from nature for years. Papadopoulos points to telecoms firms which, he suggests, managed to keep phone networks running by examining – and emulating – the way in which ants pass messages among nest-mates.

More recently, in a more meta endeavour, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s famous robotics team created a robotic life-like salamander for use in BBC One’s nature show Spy in the Wild. With cameras for eyes, these robotic reptiles were launched into the wild in order to cosy up to real reptiles, facilitating a more invasive (or less invasive, depending on how you look at it) window into reptile life. Artificial nature, inspired by nature, used to spy on… you guessed it, nature. It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘primitive technology’.


Image: Christopher Michel used under Creative Commons 

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