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SwRI’S patented technology allows automated vehicles to pilot aerial drones with no human intervention

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has secured a patent for technology that allows unmanned aerial systems to cooperate with unmanned ground vehicles, providing more information about the surrounding environment and enabling safer maneuvers. The technology has immediate military applications, and the system also is helping SwRI to develop future commercial solutions for remote inspection systems.

We developed this capability to support defense clients seeking solutions to the challenges of unmanned ground vehicles navigating in extreme environments.

—Ryan Lamm, director of SwRI’s Applied Sensing Department

US Patent No. 9,625,904 for “Unmanned ground/aerial vehicle system having autonomous ground vehicle that remotely controls one or more aerial vehicles” covers on-board, in-sky perception sensors that can detect a path to be followed by the ground vehicle.

The control system of the automated ground vehicle locates and controls the aerial vehicle and receives data from both the on-ground and in-sky perception sensors. It uses the combined perception data to determine paths for the ground vehicle as well as other remotely controlled aerial vehicles.

The pairing of remote-controlled ground and air vehicles is not new. However, the SwRI patent is unique in that it provides a completely autonomous solution that allows the systems to benefit from each other’s capabilities. Previous systems relied on human control of one or both vehicles with a remote-control system.

With autonomous control, a vehicle’s on-board control system allows it to perform its mission independent of a human operator, providing a safe alternative in dangerous environments. To address the computer processing and sensing necessary for this system, the autonomous ground vehicle remotely controls aerial vehicles.

This strategy effectively allows a highly intelligent autonomous robot to remotely control less intelligent robots without human intervention.

—Ryan Lamm

The system includes sensors mounted on the ground vehicle to perceive obstacles in its path, while sensors aboard the aerial vehicle help detect low terrain that may be obstructed by objects in front of a ground vehicle’s sensor path. The sensors on the ground vehicle also help the aerial vehicle navigate and sense tall objects that might impact its flight path.

SwRI has more than 10 years of experience developing and supporting technologies for automated driving, connected vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles for military and commercial clients. SwRI has developed more than 15 automated vehicle platforms ranging from golf carts to tractor trailers, and it develops enabling technologies for manufacturers, suppliers, and the military, including both on-road and off-road autonomy efforts.

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