New Lidar Sees Through the Challenge of Bad Weather

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The coming winter weather means it’s time to get your car ready for snow, sleet, and ice. While you can switch to winter tires and get new wiper blades, you can’t do anything about the advanced technologies that may not “see” as well in that bad weather. One company in Cambridge, Massachusetts hopes to eliminate that challenge.

Optical imaging requires a clear view to see things like pedestrians, cars, and other objects. Snow, ice, and even fog can obscure that view rendering the technology useless. Drivers get a warning when this happens but pulling over to clear off blocked sensors isn’t always safe and if it’s fog, then there’s nothing to be done.

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Unlike optical sensors that need to see to work, LiDAR (light detection and ranging) works by emitting a pulse of laser light. It then measures the time it takes for the light to reflect from objects in its path to create 3D images of the surrounding world.

Unfortunately, poor weather can scatter the laser light and create false readings limiting the usefulness of typical Lidar to clear weather only. Engineers at Draper developed a new all-weather Lidar that overcomes the challenges of poor weather.

It showed off this new technology, called Hemera, with a demonstration in a hockey rink. They filled the rink with fog that limited human vision to roughly 30 meters. Engineers then placed a target object at 54 meters and the system successfully revealed the target.

Not only does this stand to make the multitude of advanced safety features on today’s cars better by increasing the range of circumstances where they work, it brings the idea of fully self-driving cars that much closer. Until a car can see reliably in all conditions, it needs a human driver.

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The weather can turn at any moment with something as commonplace and unpredictable as fog making it impossible for self-driving cars to function. That’s when a human driver is essential. Technologies like this new Lidar overcome those challenges and make it possible for a car to function autonomously in a wider range of situations.

While this won’t deliver our self-driving future overnight, it is another step in that direction. Once winter weather is no more challenging for advanced technologies that a clear, spring day, then we’re that much closer to relinquishing the steering wheel for good.