Autonomous heavy equipment growing in popularity

Price remains a barrier in some industry sectors.

By now most people have heard about or seen video footage showing driverless Google cars navigating highways and byways. The concept is nothing short of revolutionary and well on its way to making headway into mainstream markets.

Autonomous vehicles and heavy equipment for military and industrial applications work on the same basic principles, typically providing options for either fully automated or manual operation.

Autonomous engineering leverages technology to mimic five senses

Designed to be faster and more agile than an operator relying on his five senses, unmanned vehicles and equipment are quickly gaining traction in the military, agricultural and commercial sectors. Design engineers are tasked with developing and specifying the right blend of technologies to most effectively do so.

Leveraging the mechatronic equivalents of vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch, autonomous vehicles basically mimic the complex network of physiological sensory input and responses a trained driver, operator or pilot displays when manning a vehicle.

Sight is arguably the sense humans rely most heavily on to survey and respond to surroundings. Not surprisingly, surveillance and positioning cameras have proliferated in unmanned vehicles. In the absence of sensors, cameras provide limited information. A combination of cameras and network of sensors can provide not only sight but also the vast majority of input otherwise derived via an operator's senses.

Increasingly, passenger and commercial vehicles come standard equipped with GPS. While the use of multiple cameras to create a full 360 degree view is still unique to autonomous vehicles, single mounted cameras are becoming ubiquitous in police cars and some passenger car models, as well as many commercial vehicles.

In conjunction with cameras and GPS providing points of reference to other objects, sensors enable perception of motion, obstacles and terrain changes that, in turn, inform the movement and interactions between a vehicle and its environment.

Whether on a passenger car or agricultural equipment, sensors detect not only movement and information an operator would otherwise detect, but they also provide valuable temperature, pressure and other data that otherwise requires manual gauging and monitoring.

As autonomous vehicle sectors advance, the use of multiple cameras will become more commonplace in all of these sectors, with a commensurate increase in the number of sensors—as well as data speed.

As data input devices increase, so too do the engineering challenges of processing and simultaneously translating high-speed digital input from multiple cameras and perhaps 40-50 sensors and formulating logical responses and movements with precision accuracy.

Overcoming barriers with proven robust electronic components

Autonomous vehicles leverage a broad array of technologies to enable GPS, cameras and sensors to serve as the system brain. The electronic components that serve as a foundation for autonomous vehicles include rugged, sealed, high-speed interconnects that can handle vibration and extreme temperatures.

Many of today's autonomous vehicles utilize smart antennas providing a powerful combination of quad band, GSM, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies in a single antenna. Equipped with Ethernet switches, autonomous vehicles can not only process but also transmit enormous amounts of high-speed data to a remote operator or centralized control location.

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