The agency’s Invisible Headlights program seeks to discover and quantify information contained in ambient thermal emissions in a wide variety of environments and to create new passive 3D sensors and algorithms to exploit that information. The effort is aimed at enabling autonomous and semi-autonomous systems to navigate at night or underground without emitting a signal – such as visible illumination – that could be easily detected by adversaries.
“We’re aiming to make completely passive navigation in pitch dark conditions possible,” says Joe Altepeter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “In the depths of a cave or in the dark of a moonless, starless night with dense fog, current autonomous systems can’t make sense of the environment without radiating some signal – whether it’s a laser pulse, radar, or visible light beam – all of which we want to avoid. If it involves emitting a signal, it’s not invisible for the sake of this program.”
Since everything – animate and inanimate – gives off some thermal energy, says the agency, the goal is to discover what information can be captured from even an extremely small amount of thermal radiation and then develop novel algorithms and passive sensors to transform that information into a 3D scene for navigation. The program includes three phases:
- Discovery – to determine if thermal emissions contain sufficient information to enable autonomous driving at night or underground;
- Optimization – to refine models, experimental designs, and ensure system feasibility for achieving 3D vision at both low speeds (<25 mph) and high speeds (>25 mph);
- Advanced Prototypes – to build and test passive demonstration systems that compete with active sensors.
“If we’re successful,” says Altepeter, “the capability of Invisible Headlights could extend the environments and types of missions in which autonomous assets can operate – at night, underground, in the arctic, and in fog. The fundamental understanding of what information is available in ambient thermal emissions could lead to advances in other areas, such as chemical sensing, multispectral vision systems, and other applications that exploit infrared light.”
A Broad Agency Announcement solicitation for the program is available for those interested in participating.
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