Laser tech lets self-driving cars see around the corner

Lauren Barack 06 March 2018

We crane our head to see what's around the bend — but new car technology may give us a view of what's hidden to the eye. Using lasers, researchers can map unseen objects by studying their reflected light, according to a new study in Nature magazine.

The authors, researchers at Stanford University, developed the technology with an eye to autonomous cars. Self-driving cars already tap into LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, which uses sensors, often attached to the roof as well as sides of a car, and can pick up on movement and objects around a vehicle. But the new algorithm would read what is not yet visible – a person that's around a corner heading to a crosswalk, for example.

Researchers have developed a way to quickly read indirect light to see images that hidden behind corners or even walls.Nature

With Stanford University's technology, laser pulses are sent outward, and the system reads what bounces back. The laser beam would reflect off a wall, for example, and then off a rabbit hidden around a corner from the wall, and then back to the sensor. From there, a picture would emerge. Stanford researchers have found a way to then re-create that image in just seconds.

"This method requires much smaller computational and memory resources than previous reconstruction methods do and images hidden objects at unprecedented resolution," writes researchers in their paper.

The algorithm is also compatible with current LIDAR systems inside autonomous cars — making the use of the technology more feasible. But researchers are thinking beyond just self-driving cars for the system. They see applications for the imaging during search and rescue operations as well, using it to find people inside buildings, or even on the ground if used from above.