UGV with LiDAR support

Jan 22, 2022

While UGV or Unmanned Ground Vehicles have no shortage of potential applications and functions one of the main challenges both large and small UGV need to face is the method they’ll use to navigate their surroundings.

No matter for what task you design a UGV, the fact is that for it to gather information around its surroundings and make critical choices it’ll need some kind of sensor. And this is where the integration of LiDAR technology with UGV development comes in; providing a clear solution to the classic problem of how to allow a machine to “see” its environment.

What is Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs)?

An Unmanned Ground Vehicle refers to robotic systems that are designed to operate on land without the need for an onboard human operator. Traditionally UGVs are used to deal with situations and environments that represent a potential danger to humans hence why they need to be able to function without a human on board.

It is important to note however that just because they don’t have human operators physically onboard that doesn’t mean that all UGVs are fully autonomous. While some models are capable of making their own choices and navigating complex tasks on their own, some do require input from a remote human operator. The main priority of a UGV is to ensure the task at hand does not involve humans on-site, not to remove humans from the equation altogether.

UGVs come in all shapes and sizes with some UGVs being larger than humans and others falling into the realm of micro UGV; it all depends on the task at hand.

How it works with LiDAR?

Now, since UGVs need to be able to operate without an onboard human they have challenges that traditional vehicles like cars and trucks don’t. Without a human presence at all times these UGVs need a way to offer information of their surroundings either to their CPU for autonomous movement or to a remote operator for fine-control, It’s at this point of the design phase that a sensor kit becomes essential, and this is where LiDAR becomes an important consideration.

While a camera setup can be effective when a UGV is fully reliant on human controls it will be lacking for any drone that is expected to have autonomous movement, and even for direct control, it can prove to offer insufficient data. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technologies n the other hand might not offer immediate visual data to a system or an operator but they can calculate depth and distance almost immediately, providing more relevant information about the area at hand.

Navigation

The idea of navigation and location in robotics has offered a considerable challenge to developers across the years, and on the topic of UGV robots, it isn’t any different. It’s important to understand that at face value robots don’t have an accurate concept of their location and to be able to provide this functionality additional systems must be added to a robot or UGV.

GPS and pre-loaded maps are useful assets to provide a robot with a defined pathway but it will still lack a sense of location inside this path and a way to identify changes in its surroundings. This is where LiDAR comes in as a solution to potential navigation issues. LiDAR sensors can detect the depth of multiple objects at a time which allows a drone to correct its path if necessary, avoid obstacles and identify its location compared to important landmarks in the location.

Control

Even for UGVs that rely mostly or fully on direct control, there’s a large advantage to using LiDAR systems on the design instead of relying solely on more visual-oriented sensors. A camera array is logically the first thought that will come to mind for most individuals designing a remote control UGV, however, cameras despite their rich visual information do have limitations.

The main issue with relying solely on cameras is that depth is not accurately portrayed on them. Just like rear mirrors on a car warn us that distances might not be completely accurate, the information conveyed with cameras isn’t sufficient to accurately gauge the distance of objects, especially for operations that require fine controls. In these situations, an auxiliary LiDAR array can provide accurate information of the distances of objects in the recording to perform more accurate and precise motions with a UGV.

Locomotion

By now we’ve seen that LiDAR technologies can provide considerable support to UGV systems as a way to understand the surroundings of a robot and either help it understand its position on it or provide additional data for a remote operator to help it navigate a specific area or task. But what does LiDAR offer in the field of UGV locomotion?

While LiDAR isn’t directly tied to the movement of wheels or threads it does have a key hand in locomotion, by making sure a UGVs movement is successful and efficient. As we discussed above an issue with simple camera setups is that they don’t offer valuable depth information, which means that an autonomous UGV that relies solely on cameras will likely struggle to move around cramped areas if not directly crash. LiDAR provides a simple method to transmit depth information to UGVs and as such has been a mainstay to ensure the efficient locomotion of autonomous vehicles for years.

Where it can be used?

Unmanned Ground Vehicles have no shortage of potential applications and there are a lot of fields and industries that have used them for decades already. One of the most popular examples of UGVs in our culture ultimately comes in the form of the NASA rovers. We’ve all seen images in either film or news about these small vehicles that explore distant planets on their own, and this is a perfect representation of what UGV technology offers. Other planets are quite simply unavailable for human operators, which means that relying on machines that don’t demand onboard operators is the most efficient solution.

Of course, UGVs are far more than a sci-fi invention and they currently see use in countless day-to-day situations. UGVs are used to fight dangerous fires, explore crumbled locations for survivors, handle agricultural spraying, and even ship products at times.

Small unmanned ground vehicles

If you don’t have a clear idea of what a UGV looks like in your head it wouldn’t be surprising to imagine them as large and bulky vehicles that take a whole lane, but in practice, some of the most popular and efficient UGVs are fairly small in scale.

There are multiple reasons for the popularity and development of small UGVs, but it does largely come down to how practical they have proven to be. Small UGVs require far less energy to function which means that they can be powered by electrical batteries and aren’t forced to rely on oil engines. Additionally, a smaller size provides considerable advantages when it comes to movement. A small UGV can navigate more complex environments and enter areas that a human wouldn’t be able to reach, making the most out of their unmanned nature.

Commercial UGVs

With each passing day, UGVs are becoming more and more commonplace, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that there is a multitude of models available for sale right now. UGVs provide a way to handle complex tasks without human assistance and as such, they have gained a lot of traction to help in a multitude of civilian applications.

Nowadays UGVs provide assistance in agriculture by spraying and harvesting crops, see use as shipping and logistic assistants, and assist local authorities in search and rescue operations as well as other tasks that can prove to be too risky for humans to undertake on their own.

UGV Military

While there’s no shortage of civilian applications for UGVs it also can’t be denied that few fields have taken to these drones as much as the military, and the amount of unmanned armored vehicles in the market is nothing short of impressive. Armed forces all over the world have taken advantage of the extra level of safety that UGVs offer to provide safer answers to common logistics challenges that soldiers can run into.

UGVs are used to perform reconnaissance, carry equipment, as mobile weapon platforms, and particularly in the area of Explosive Ordinance Disposal; where they provide a way to disarm explosives without risking the physical integrity of soldiers.

What is the future of UGV?

UGVs are already making a large impact in the world in a wide variety of fields, but that doesn’t mean that their development progress is going to slow down anytime soon. For the future of UGVs to offer heavier integration into day-to-day tasks and for them to become more autonomous developers must continue to invest in sensor arrays like LiDAR and their seamless integration with UGVs.

Right now, you might not be used to UGVs, but don’t be surprised when these independent vehicles play a large role in our daily experiences by delivering our packages, assisting us in our purchases, and even providing public assistance on our streets.