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Ford Develops A ‘Tiara’ To Protect Sensors Of Self-driving Vehicles From Bugs

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The autonomous vehicle research team at Ford has been dedicating an unbelievable amount of time to thinking about how insects affect have been posing a significant challenge to self-driving vehicles.

Over the last few years, Ford has been conducting some serious research into making sure self-driving vehicles can always see the world around them, no matter what may try to get in the way. The research team sprayed dirt and dust onto the self-driving vehicle sensors. They showered LiDAR sensors with water to simulate rainfall and also created synthetic bird droppings and smeared it on camera lenses.

When it came to bugs, the team sat down for discussions with the author of “That Gunk on Your Car,” zoologist Mark Hostetler, to gain insight into the various insects that are regularly making contact with vehicles — and how often they're doing so. They even built a makeshift “bug launcher” that shoots insects at vehicle sensors at high speeds, so the team could really understand the best way to clean them off.

All the various sensors on these cars are, after all, constantly working to deliver the best picture of the world they possibly can, but an untimely splat could seriously interfere with their ability to do that.

To keep the self-driving sensors from getting hit with bug in the first place, the team decided to take maximum advantage of the “tiara,” the structure that sits on top of all our self-driving vehicles and holds the collection of cameras, LiDAR and radar that helps the car “see” where it's going. The team has already submitted around 50 patents related to self-driving cleaning and structural systems, demonstrating that there's a lot of innovation happening outside the world of self-driving software. The tiara has been designed to do a lot more than just house cameras — it's actually the first line of defence for the sensors.

As the car is driving, the tiara funnels air out through different slots near the camera lens. This creates an “air curtain” that actually deflects bugs away from the sensor itself. So anytime bugs are making a bee-line for a camera lens, the air flowing out of the tiara pushes it aside so it doesn't make contact with the lens. It's like changing the course of an asteroid on a crash-course with Earth. This method was remarkably successful. With bugs, for example, the tests showed that the air curtain successfully diverted the vast majority of them away from our self-driving sensors.

Still, this solution wasn't perfect. Insects could still break past the air curtain in some situations, so the team at Ford needed a way to successfully clean the sensors when necessary. After all, trips to the car wash aren't really practical with self-driving vehicles due to all the sensitive technology packed inside. Instead of taking these cars to the cleaners, the team had to the take the cleaners to them.

Fully integrated into the tiara, the cleaning system features next generation nozzles next to each camera lens that can spray washer fluid as needed to clean the sensors. Using advanced software algorithms that helps self-driving vehicles determine when a sensor is dirty, the cleaning system can specifically hone in on dirty camera lenses (whether it's just one dirty lens or several), efficiently cleaning each one individually without wasting washer fluid on already-clean sensors.

After a sensor has been sprayed down, the tiara has a clever way of drying itself off. It releases air through a slot which quickly “dries” the face of the lens. Needless to say, a great deal of engineering work is being put into ensuring our systems are as safe, extremely quick, capable and precise as possible.

The team has gone to great lengths to test the effectiveness of the system, taking one of the test vehicles and driving it through the Huron-Manistee National Forests in western Michigan to see how the cleaning system reacted to swarms of bugs. This system has also been equipped on the third generation of self-driving test vehicles, which are now hitting the streets in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Miami-Dade County and Washington, D.C., so it's going to see continuous testing in very different environments.

As fun as some of this development may sound, these are not features that would simply be nice to have when self-driving vehicles are ready to be deployed; they are critical functions that vehicles must be able to carry out on their own in order for safe deployment to be possible.


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