Automated vehicles are on the way, and the European GNSS Agency (GSA) sees satellite navigation as a core technology that will help to ensure their safe operation. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the GSA shared its space with the 'ESCAPE' project, an EU-funded initiative that has developed a unique positioning module for autonomous or semi-autonomous driving.
Autonomous vehicles will feature both sensor-based and connection-based solutions for a variety of vehicle services. Ultimately, the GSA sees a ‘converged solution’ as the best alternative, combining the strengths of both approaches. By integrating sensor data and connectivity-based information, operators can reduce the need for the most expensive sensors and at the same time save money on infrastructure.
The Fundamental Elements-funded ESCAPE project has designed and prototyped the ESCAPE GNSS Engine. It is a unique positioning module that combines precision GNSS and 4G connectivity, for the highly accurate and reliable positioning capabilities required to make automated driving a reality.
"This is an onboard unit for autonomous vehicles," said Jessica Garcia Soriano, R&D engineer of the Advanced Communications Business Unit at Ficosa. "It is equipped with a very good GNSS receiver made by STMicroelectronics. This was actually the first dual-frequency GNSS receiver made for the automotive market."
Dual-frequency is of course a real differentiator for Galileo, as the world's leading provider of dual-frequency GNSS signals. This means added precision and robustness and it helps enormously with multi-phase errors and other urban canyon issues in city-driving scenarios.
"We also have a very good positioning solution provided by GMV, another Spanish company. They are experts in these kinds of solutions. The outputs from this solution are very accurate. So we have GNSS of course, including Galileo, and apart from this you have a modem inside, a 4G modem that gets GNSS corrections from the internet, so this helps to provide better positioning. And apart from this you have inside the same module an inertial measurement unit [IMU]. This is a sensor, a device that senses acceleration and has a gyroscope, so this information also helps in providing good positioning."
The ESCAPE unit also provides for the integration of other data from the vehicle. "That means vehicle odometry, for instance, you can have camera information, or information from maps that are stored in the vehicle, among others" Garcia said.
The market is ready
"One of our important goals is to provide a low-cost system," Garcia said. "There are other very good positioning systems that are being developed that can be based on some very advanced technologies, such as LiDAR for instance, but this is very expensive. So our target is to develop and build a prototype of a system that could be installed in all vehicles, for the whole market. And so we are combining GNSS, 4G, IMU and all of these other data sources from the vehicle in an intelligent way, in an affordable way."
Indeed, one of the things that make ESCAPE unique is the way it brings together high-end GNSS processing capabilities with an industrialisation process that targets high volumes and comparatively limited cost and size. It also encompasses hardware and software safety procedures required for certification for the automotive market.
Garcia explained, "At Ficosa, we are a top-tier global provider devoted to the research, development, manufacturing of vision, safety, connectivity and efficiency systems for the automotive sector. We provide solutions directly to vehicle manufacturers. Based on our expertise and thanks to the work we have done on this project, we understand very well that GNSS is a central focus for a lot of applications. From the moment we started working on this project, at Ficosa we realised that this is a new and very important market. Right now we are working on a positioning system for autonomous driving based on this unit. This is part of our roadmap at the moment. This is a positioning system that we are ready to offer to the customer."
The unit is ready now, but we have yet to see autonomous cars in large numbers on the road. Is this a problem for the ESCAPE system? Garcia answered, "From the very first moment that you have an autonomous car in the street, you will need high-accuracy positioning, because these vehicles will need this positioning to maintain themselves safely on the road. But we don't have to wait for autonomous cars. The vehicles on the road today can already benefit from this technology."
Garcia pointed to Europe's eCall system, where a call centre automatically receives location information from vehicles in distress, thanks to on-board GNSS. "You already have this emergency call technology in the vehicles," Garcia said, "and it provides a location, so the better the location is, the easier it is to locate the people in an emergency situation. No, we don't have to wait."
Location and more
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that autonomous vehicles will soon be appearing on European road networks, and most driving-related decisions will be based, one way or another, on the location of the vehicle and of other vehicles and objects in its vicinity. So vehicle location and positioning will be a critical component for the effective transportation of people and goods by self-driving road vehicles. That positioning will be enabled mainly by GNSS technologies, including Europe’s Galileo, which is expected to offer significant benefits in terms of accuracy and authentication compared to the other satellite-based navigation systems.
GNSS-based location will have to be complemented by other technologies in order to get to the integrity level needed in all driving situations, but the GSA also believes the combination of dual-frequency GNSS and 4G/5G connectivity can do more than just navigation, enabling as well a diverse range of in-vehicle location-based services (LBS), much like what we see emerging in smartphones. The EU-funded ESCAPE project, with its innovative GNSS engine, represents an important step forward in the pursuit of accurate, reliable and affordable positioning and connectivity for the emerging autonomous and connected cars markets.
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