Next-generation technology is coming to a self-driving car near you

November 7, 2018 by Natasha Pinon, University of Southern California
Professor Jayakanth Ravichandran and PhD student Shanyuan Niu in the lab where they develop next generation technologies. Credit: Valentina Suarez, Photo provided by: Jayakanth Ravichandran

Typically, navigation systems for autonomous cars use visible light to identify foreign objects. This works most of the time. But in misty, foggy, or rainy conditions, self-driving cars become a deer in headlights, largely unaware of upcoming obstacles. Scattered light confuses the car's system, thus blurring the distinction between real objects and reflections from the scattered light itself. Under these conditions, autonomous cars cannot recognize upcoming obstacles that would be easily identifiable to the human eye.

To see through hazardous conditions, sensors within the cars need technology that can predict obstacles not immediately evident. Fortunately, Jayakanth Ravichandran, an assistant professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at USC Viterbi, wants to develop new electronic and optical materials that enable what he calls "next generation technologies" to improve the technology that surrounds people in their everyday lives, including .

"Look at the smartphones, computers and LED TVs around you," Ravichandran said. "None of these existed, at least in the current form, 10 to 20 years ago. These are possible because of research on materials used in these technologies. My group is looking at developing materials that will be used in technologies in the next ten to twenty years."

Ravichandran's latest research, conducted with doctoral students Shanyuan Niu, Boyang Zhao, and master's student Yucheng Zhou, found materials that might fundamentally change the way autonomous cars operate. Ravichandran's group closely collaborated with Han Wang, an assistant professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering at USC Viterbi and Mikhail Kats, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and this work was recently published in Nature Photonics.

Though the typically used by to identify obstacles cannot function in fog, smoke or rain, infrared light can see through such conditions. Consequently, developing new infrared devices to function in these hazy viewing conditions could vastly improve the safety of self-driving cars, Ravichandran said.

His lab has just discovered a material which could work in such infrared devices.

The material – a composition with the chemical formula, BaTiS3 – could become functional in thermal imaging systems, one type of infrared device.

Thermal imaging systems can recognize changes in an object's temperature by tracking the amount of radiation emitted from that object. By following the temperature changes of particular objects, thermal imaging systems can identify movement even in the absence of visibility – a crucial function for self-driving cars.

For an effective thermal imaging system, there must be a detector to sense the heat radiation and to provide a readable response, as well as a system for filtering and manipulating incoming radiation.

BaTiS3 currently works as a filter for the incoming radiation. It may soon work as a detector as well.

"We are exploring that now," Ravichandran noted. "Most importantly, there are subtle connections between the performance of the device and the material properties. Our job is to identify that and look for the right type of materials based on this understanding."

Though his lab's project is still in its early stages, Ravichandran said that his team's next step is to make a functioning device out of the material so that they can take it to market. He also hopes to find other compositions that may work in thermal imaging systems even better than BaTiS3.

The implications of the lab's findings are exciting for uses outside of autonomous vehicle sensors as well.

"There are possibilities of using these to sense environmental pollutants, and biological agents in the air," Ravichandran said. "If there is some sort of airborne disease, identifying those biological particles can become very easy with this technology.

"There are so many applications which can happen."

Explore further: Researchers develop new class of optoelectronic materials

More information: Shanyuan Niu et al. Giant optical anisotropy in a quasi-one-dimensional crystal, Nature Photonics (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41566-018-0189-1

Related Stories

Researchers develop new class of optoelectronic materials

April 11, 2017

Semiconductors are used for myriad optoelectronic devices. However, as devices get smaller and smaller and more demanding, new materials are needed to ensure that devices work with greater efficiency. Now, researchers at ...

Samsung steps up push into autonomous driving technology

September 14, 2017

Samsung Electronics Co. said Thursday it will invest 75 million euro ($89 million) in TTTech, a Vienna, Austria-based company that makes autonomous driving technologies and safety controls for Audi cars and others, stepping ...

Recommended for you

When electric fields make spins swirl

November 14, 2018

We are reaching the limits of silicon capabilities in terms of data storage density and speed of memory devices. One of the potential next-generation data storage elements is the magnetic skyrmion. A team at the Center for ...

Structure of fossil-fuel source rocks is finally decoded

November 13, 2018

The fossil fuels that provide much of the world's energy orginate in a type of rock known as kerogen, and the potential for recovering these fuels depends crucially on the size and connectedness of the rocks' internal pore ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.