Reporter with Silicon Hills News

One of Southwest Research Institute's autonomous cars, know as MARTI, which stands for Mobile Autonomous Robotics Technology Initiative. Photo courtesy of SwRI.

One of Southwest Research Institute’s autonomous cars, know as MARTI, which stands for Mobile Autonomous Robotics Technology Initiative.
Photo courtesy of SwRI.

A group gathered at bleachers in a test field just off Culebra road on Monday as a giant red cab of an eighteen wheeler drove up and stopped along with a Ford Explorer, nicknamed Marti, and a Humvee. None of them had drivers.

Most people have heard about Google testing its autonomous vehicles on the streets of Austin, just the second location outside of its Mountain View, California headquarters.

But how many people know for the past decade a group of scientists at Southwest Research Institute have been working on autonomous car research in San Antonio?

At SwRI, driverless trucks, cars and even Humvees regularly hit the road or the dirt on the SwRI campus to prefect their navigation systems and software.
On Monday, SwRI showed off a few of the more than 4,000 projects underway at the nonprofit organization that does contracted research and development for companies and government agencies. It was part of its 68th annual meeting of its advisory trustees and board of directors. In the morning, visitors listened to presentations from scientists and engineers. In the afternoon, they boarded busses to tour labs, buildings and research test sites like the autonomous vehicle field.

“We’ve been doing research and development in this area for about 10 years now for a variety of clients, foreign and domestic, military and commercial,” said Ryan D. Lamm, director of research and development in the applied sensoring department for the Automation and Data System Division at SwRI.

“The whole point of this technology is to save lives,” Lamm said.

The institute has automated more than 15 different vehicles, Lamm said. They’ve deployed them in five countries on four continents. In 2014, the institute sent two military vehicles to Afghanistan.

What purpose do the autonomous vehicles serve?

“From a military application standpoint, it’s to get the soldiers out of harm’s way,” Lamm said. “From a commercial standpoint, it’s to make cars that don’t crash.”

SwRI’s training ground for autonomous vehicles is geared around the complex problems for accelerating the realization of this technology, said Steve W. Dellenback, executive director of the Intelligent Systems Department in the Automation and Data System Division at SwRI.

The institute’s test track has an oval pattern which is about a mile in length with paved streets equipped with stoplights and railroad crossing areas. But it also tests the military vehicles on dirt roads or fields to simulate what those vehicles might encounter in a war zone. The institute also has 200 acres in a private area at the SwRI campus where it tests autonomous vehicles, Dellenback said.

In the U.S., 64 percent of the roads are paved so that leaves 36 percent that are not paved, Dellenback said. The institute has developed technology specifically for autonomous vehicles to navigate unpaved roads, he said. It has created software that runs on a hardware system with a bunch of sensors and costs about $10,000. The institute’s autonomous vehicles can operate without GPS and radar in a stealth mode, which is necessary in a war zone. At the institute, autonomous vehicles use sensors, software, cameras and perception to navigate the landscape, Lamm said.

“The technology is moving very, very fast,” Lamm said. “It’s accelerating. It’s nice to see. We’re hoping to see these systems out on the roadways. I hope my children and I get to enjoy them sometime soon.”

In addition to the autonomous car research, visitors to SwRI at a different test site watched a truck drive 60 miles per hour into a guardrail to test the safety of the guardrail. The truck, which also didn’t have a driver, was on a cable pulled by another truck in the opposite direction which helped keep it on course. The institute, which has worked on guardrail and highway safety for more than 30 years, is doing research for guard rail manufacturers, according to a spokesman.

The other on-site demonstration involved fire technology. The institute tests building materials for fire resistance by burning them in a giant kiln. It has also created an on-site pollution abatement system to capture the carbon released during the fires.

During the morning sessions, SwRI staff presented technical programs on everything from New Horizons mission to Pluto to large scale robotics development.
SwRI has a campus in Boulder, Colorado with more than 100 staff. Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer at SwRI, leads a team that work on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. He shared his insights at the SwRI meeting on capturing images of Pluto.

“New Horizons collected an unprecedented amount of data for a first flyby mission,” Parker said.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the division name and the number of continents the autonomous vehicles have been deployed to.