Ground Penetrating Radar: Keeping Autonomous Cars on Track No Matter the Weather

The same technology that helps the military detect landmines could soon help autonomous vehicles (AVs) stay in their lane during poor driving conditions. Currently AVs rely on radar, LiDar sensors, and cameras to see their surroundings. But when visibility is low due to inclement weather, time of day, or if road markings are unclear, these systems run into trouble. This is where ground-penetrating radar (GPR) steps in.


Created by researchers at MIT and first put to use by US Armed Forces in Afghanistan in 2013, GPR produces a map of what lies beneath a road by way of electromagnetic pulses. These pulses reach 10 feet into the Earth and reflect off dirt, rocks, pipes, etc. to produce a map of the underground road composition. Comparing this imagery to surrounding subterranean geology tells a vehicle where the road is, even if it can’t be seen by a driver. This mapping has been shown to be accurate within a few centimeters even at highway speeds at night during a snowstorm.

The company leading the development of GPR for the driverless world is a startup called WaveSense. Their slogan “When other sensors go blind, WaveSense keeps you safe.” denotes their aim to fill the gap left by current optical sensor systems. So it’s not to say that LiDar, radar, and camera systems won’t have their place in the future of autonomy, just that GPR will help AVs paint a fuller picture of the world around (and beneath) them.

The automotive industry is on the edge of profound transformations and the reliability of driverless navigation remains the main hurdle left to clear for AVs to meet performance standards and gain public trust. No doubt GPR will be a major factor in making the leap.

Below is a video demonstrating GPR:


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