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Roo radar: Volvo develops software to avoid crashing into kangaroos

A team of Volvo safety engineers has descended on Canberra to study kangaroo behaviour and adapt the car company's collision avoidance software to work with erratic animals, not just pedestrians.

CSIRO/Creative Commons

Kangaroos are not exactly a familiar sight in the coastal Swedish city of Gothenburg, but a team of Swedish engineers from Volvo are about to get a crash course in roos as part of a bid to improve the safety features on the company's cars.

The safety engineers descended on Canberra this week as part of a world-first project to study and film kangaroos in their local environment. The tests are all part of a plan to develop Volvo's first collision avoidance software that will use radars and cameras to detect kangaroos and avoid collisions.

Major car manufacturers are certainly upping their game when it comes to adding safety features and connectivity to their cars. While high-end brands are rolling out advanced driverless features that give us a glimpse of the future of everyday travel, other features such as parking assistance and collision avoidance have reached the mainstream and are now commonplace in new cars.

Volvo plans to take the technology it has developed for detecting pedestrians and cyclists in a city setting, and adapting it to detect animals.

The existing technology works by using a radar sensor in the grille of the car to detect moving objects (such as cars, people or animals) on the road ahead. A high-resolution camera in the windscreen works in sync with the radar to detect which way the object is moving, and then the vehicle's internal computer can apply the brakes if there is imminent danger.

"The system processes 15 images every second and can react to an emergency in half the time of a human," the company said. "It takes 1.2 seconds for an attentive driver to detect danger and then apply the brakes, compared to about 0.05 seconds for the computer system."

While the technology has already been used for detecting pedestrians and adapted for Swedish natives such as reindeer, it's about to get a true test on Australian roads. But with NRMA statistics showing 20,000 kangaroo collisions on Australian roads every year, resulting in more than AU$75 million in claims, there's certainly good reason to adapt the technology locally.

"Whereas Volvo's Pedestrian Detection technology is geared towards city driving, animal detection is designed to work at highway speeds," said Volvo Senior Safety Engineer, Martin Magnusson. "Kangaroos are very unpredictable animals and difficult to avoid, but we are confident we can refine our animal detection technology to detect them and avoid collisions on the highway.

"In Sweden we have done research involving larger, slower moving animals like elk, reindeer and cows which are a serious threat on our roads. Kangaroos are smaller than these animals and their behaviour is more erratic. This is why it's important that we test and calibrate our technology on real kangaroos in their natural environment."

The kangaroo research is part of a broader by Volvo to "take responsibility away from drivers" and ensure no one is killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by 2020.

"Volvo's City Safety truly is state of the art technology, because the brakes can be primed in milliseconds, much faster than a human," said Magnusson. "We are only at the beginning of what is possible."