RoboBee Lidar Useful for Robocars?

Laser eyes designed for robot bees could help driverless cars see

1 min read
RoboBee Lidar Useful for Robocars?
Photo: Microrobotics Lab/Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

Scientists are currently developing bee-size flying robots dubbed RoboBees. These flapping-wing micro aerial vehicles might one day find use in an array of applications including pollinating crops, search and rescue, exploration, and surveillance. That’s only if they can be given the depth perception they need in order to avoid flying into obstacles. But the lasers that could one day help robotic bees see might also help driverless cars avoid collisions, researchers say.

Scientists aim to equip RoboBees with lidar, which emits invisible laser pulses instead of radio waves as radar does. (These lasers are safe for use around human eyes.) Sensors measure how long it takes reflected laser light to return in order to calculate the distance, size, and shape of objects.

Ultimately, the researchers aim to develop micro-lidar devices that weigh as little as 56 milligrams, says University of Florida computer vision expert Sanjeev Koppal. This research could not only help RoboBees navigate in the air, but might one day help autonomous vehicles on the road.

Though lidar is already used in cars for collision avoidance, the lidar systems in today’s driverless car prototypes use are typically about the size of camping lanterns. “Wherever lidar is used today, imagine using our smaller, more compact and energy efficient version of it,” Koppal says. “Smaller, cheaper micro-lidars could be used in more places around the car, increasing safety.”

The researchers aim to lay the foundation for micro-lidar technology in three years, Koppal says. “Our vision is that we will have demonstrations of a working sensor and associated algorithms closer to the end of the project,” says Karthik Dantu, a Koppal collaborator who is a computer scientist at the University at Buffalo in New York.

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To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

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A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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