The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has contracted Locata to provide local, ground-based precision positioning signals for vehicle testing in a new $30-million expansion at the famous Vehicle Research Center, focused on vehicle automation testing. A novel indoor section of the expansion will allow replication of parking garages and urban canyons — where GPS will be largely masked — and will enable evaluation of technologies such as forward collision-avoidance systems in adverse conditions.
Used to be that changes to equipment in and on cars took decades to enter production. As an example, just how long did it take to get headrests/restraints into most vehicles? Restraint patents were originally filed in 1921, and people started to get interested in putting them in cars in the 1950s, but they didn’t start to show up in vehicles until the 1960s and weren’t mandated until 1969 in the U.S. Since then, the rate of technology adoption by the automakers has accelerated.
Now, it seems that almost every new car has Internet, Bluetooth phone, GPS navigation, rain-sensing wipers, touchscreen, automatic foot sensing/hand waving/touch sensitive lift-gate/door-locks/touchscreens, and even massaging seats and automatic seat positioning… And safety devices galore, including multiple air-bags and anti-lock braking systems, rear-view cameras, intelligent speed adaptation, and now even lane-departure and forward collision mitigation/collision avoidance systems.
Safety has finally become a major selling feature on almost every make and every model, thanks in large part to organizations like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Vehicle Research Center (VRC) near Washington, D.C. The VRC is the principle location for U.S. vehicle crash testing that we see regularly on TV and YouTube videos with crash-test dummies being bashed around in all sorts of simulated vehicle accidents. These tests have led to significantly enhanced safety features in today’s vehicles.
Automation in vehicles, particularly automation of safety devices, is seen as the next most promising phase of vehicle safety improvement. And as these safety devices become more complex, they need to be verified in realistic conditions. Hence, the VRC is now undertaking a major expansion of its testing capabilities with the addition of a continuous vehicle test track that transverses not only open-air roadway areas, but also includes a 300-foot by 700-foot fully covered testing area.
The $30 million upgrade will include a Locata supplied LocataNet, which will provide the VRC with high-precision positioning to enable rigorous, consistent and repeatable scientific evaluation of new vehicle crash avoidance systems. Along with the cm-level positioning provided by the Locata network, VRC is also working on state-of-the-art robotics to enable the required level of testing precision. The LocataNet will furnish the IIHS with a locally controlled positioning system that is seamless over all the VRC test areas, including extremely accurate and consistent automated positioning of vehicles.
In the covered enclosure, VRC intends to set up collision avoidance testing for areas such as parking garages and urban canyons — areas where GPS is either not available, or is degraded to a level where positioning is intermittent or isn’t available. Locata will provide a consistent level of accuracy and reliability that the VRC requires for these GPS-degraded scenarios.
The VRC site currently looks very much like a construction site with the track extensions under way and the under-cover area just starting to be built. The VRC facility will come online in two stages — the outdoor track before the end of the year and the indoor around early Q2 next year. Locata engineers have been working with Perrone Robotics on very early integration testing. Perrone is contracted to deliver a system for testing vehicle safety systems in the test vehicles that IIHS is testing. For the first phase, the system includes a robot target vehicle with the footprint of a car, but only 4 inches high and 1 inch of ground clearance. If the vehicle being tested fails to prevent a collision with the robot target vehicle, the test vehicle runs over the robot target vehicle, dislodging a soft target, but avoiding damage to the test vehicle, robot target vehicle, or soft target.
(For a feature article on the Perrone Robotics soft-target unmanned ground vehicle and drop-in actuator kit, see the upcoming August issue of GPS World magazine.)
To ensure that the test vehicle drives repeatedly, the system also includes a drop-in actuator kit that can be installed into any test vehicle in 30 minutes or less. The system is designed to allow a human driver to sit comfortably in the vehicle and drive, but is also capable of controlling the throttle, brake and steering to drive test profiles. Perrone is using Locata as the positioning system. In addition to alleviating concerns about GPS outages or dead/weak signal spots, it also allows the system to be operated on the new, covered IIHS test track currently under construction.
The Locata network has been running from ground-based tripods scattered around the track wherever construction will allow. IIHS will construct 30-foot masts on which to place Locata antennas, but even that is still several months away.
Locata’s autonomous positioning technology uses terrestrial networks that function as a “local ground-based replica” of GPS-style positioning. Locata works with GPS, but can also operate independently when GPS is not robust or is completely unavailable. Instead of orbiting satellites, Locata utilizes a network of small, ground-based transmitters that blanket a chosen area with strong radio-positioning signals. Because it is terrestrially based and provides relatively high power signals, Locata works in any internal or external environment.
A fundamental requirement for radio-positioning systems is nano-second-level synchronization of all transmitters in the positioning network. In the past, multiple atomic clocks were used to achieve this level of synchronization. Instead, Locata’s technology relies on a patented synchronization method called TimeLoc, which allows Locata to replicate GPS in a ground network.
Locata’s technology encompasses both the transmit and receive sides of the positioning network, allowing the system to be configured to meet specific, localized demand for availability, accuracy and reliability. This flexibility ensures that signal integrity can be guaranteed in even the most demanding environments — especially indoors, like the covered test track section of the expanded VRC.
Locata has also made significant progress in North America with the recent award of a contract to instrument the White Sands Missile Range to Locata’s partner TMC Design. The 746th Test Squadron’s new non-GPS-based positioning system is expected to be operational by Q3 2013, with a network that covers 2,500 square miles (6,500 square kilometers). Locata technology will provide the USAF’s “gold standard GPS truth system,” supplying continuous centimeter-level, independent positioning when GPS is completely jammed. This award followed several months of U.S. Air Force testing and evaluation of an initial LocataNet installation at the White Sands facility.
So, following the recent IIHS endorsement of the Locata technology for use at the VRC, Locata appears to be well on the way to acceptance as a reliable truth system for use alongside GPS. Along with other mining-related installations elsewhere in the world, it would seem that we are no longer in evaluation mode; rather, we should anticipate other future Locata production installations.