Most people see a cockroach and think, "I should call the exterminator." But when a bug scurries past Robert N. Schmidt, he feels inspired. For Schmidt and his team of scientists at Orbital Research Inc. (#482), the common household pest is an unlikely model for an advanced control system that aims to prevent plane and car crashes and even missile attacks.
After observing the cockroach's uncanny ability to skitter away from an approaching shoe, Ravi Vaidyanathan, a scientist working with Schmidt's Cleveland-based company, began studying the insect's reflexes. Together with colleagues at Case Western Reserve University, Vaidyanathan used those observations to develop an algorithm for rapid decision making. Schmidt says that the resulting mathematical neural network -- called BioAVERT -- will improve navigation in cars, ships, and "anything else you want to avoid a collision."
The air force has a contract for the company's technology, and Schmidt recently began flight-testing it. But the CEO anticipates civilian applications as well. "Think about when you're trying to avoid a tire tread in the road," he says. "You don't want to crash into the wall on the left or hit the car on the right. So what are your choices?" A cockroach, says Schmidt, has hundreds of thousands of sensors that process this sort of information in about one-twentieth of a second. "By mimicking a cockroach," he says, "we're able to come up with a neural net for very fast response."
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