Mechanical engineers advance an ‘intelligent co-pilot’ for cars

Barrels and cones dot an open field in Saline, Mich., forming an obstacle course for a modified vehicle. A driver remotely steers the vehicle through the course from a nearby location as a researcher looks on. Occasionally, the researcher instructs the driver to keep the wheel straight — a trajectory that appears to put the vehicle on a collision course with a barrel. Despite the driver’s actions, the vehicle steers itself around the obstacle, transitioning control back to the driver once the danger has passed.

Barrels and cones dot an open field in Saline, Mich., forming an obstacle course for a modified vehicle. A driver remotely steers the vehicle through the course from a nearby location as a researcher looks on. Occasionally, the researcher instructs the driver to keep the wheel straight — a trajectory that appears to put the vehicle on a collision course with a barrel. Despite the driver’s actions, the vehicle steers itself around the obstacle, transitioning control back to the driver once the danger has passed.

Anderson and Iagnemma integrated this human perspective into their robotic system. The team came up with an approach to identify safe zones, or “homotopies,” rather than specific paths of travel. Instead of mapping out individual paths along a roadway, the researchers divided a vehicle’s environment into triangles, with certain triangle edges representing an obstacle or a lane’s boundary. The researchers devised an algorithm that “constrains” obstacle-abutting edges, allowing a driver to navigate across any triangle edge except those that are constrained. If a driver is in danger of crossing a constrained edge — for instance, if he’s fallen asleep at the wheel and is about to run into a barrier or obstacle — the system takes over, steering the car back into the safe zone.

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