driverless car snow autonomous vehicle

Ground penetrating radar allows driverless cars to navigate in the snow

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers are testing ground penetrating radar (GPR) in driverless cars in order to allow them to navigate through snowy conditions and inclement weather.

A team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) said the technology allows the cars to “see” what is underneath the snow so that the driverless systems do not get an incorrect impression of the ground underneath it.

Autonomous vehicles currently use a technology called lidar (‘light and radar’) which works by detecting pulses of laser light reflected from surrounding objects back to the instrument in order to calculate the distance to those objects. Using many bursts of light, a lidar system can build up a picture of its surroundings.

Snow can alter the data sent that the car receives from its environment and block the visible information on road signs.

GPR also gives vehicles better understanding of their environment in dense, foggy conditions. It builds a basemap of the terrain that an onboard computer correlates, contributing to a three-dimensional GPS-tagged subterranean database.

The CSAIL team has so far only tested the technology at low speeds on closed country roads, but they believe it could also be used on highways and other high-speed areas.

They also noted that the technology doesn’t work above ground, so will still need to be paired with other systems. The detection hardware is also currently too bulky to fit in most commercial vehicles.

WaveSense, a commercial spin out of MIT, is trying to commercialise GPR for inclusion on future driverless vehicles.

“Our work demonstrates that this approach is actually a practical way to help self-driving cars navigate poor weather without actually having to be able to ‘see’ in the traditional sense using laser scanners or cameras,” said senior author and MIT professor Daniela Rus.

Last week, researchers demonstrated that driverless cars can be fooled into emergency braking by projecting ‘phantom’ images onto the road that trick the autopilot into thinking a pedestrian is standing in the vehicle’s path.

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