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What happens if a bug splats on an automated driving sensor?

One good splat could seriously impact the system’s ability to do its job

Published: September 4, 2019, 10:30 PM
Updated: September 10, 2019, 2:01 AM

AV Sensor Bug Washer

Anyone who’s driven through a swarm of bugs on the way back from cottage country can testify to how much of mess it makes, and when it happens to your windshield, how difficult it is to clean completely.

Ford Fusion autonomous test car

Although it takes scores of bugs to make a dent in the visibility of the driver, it becomes considerably easier for splattered bugs to impact the vision of an automated driving system. In fact, one good camera splat could seriously impact the system’s ability to do its job.

That’s why Ford, over the past couple years, has been developing a way to keep automated systems functioning at their very best regardless of whatever spray, dirt, grime or even bird droppings get on the various cameras and sensors, including a “bug launcher” to fire insects at sensors at high speeds.

AV Sensor Bug Washer testing

And for real-world testing, the team took autonomous test vehicles out to high-density bug zones, such as Michigan’s Huron-Manistee National Forests

The team’s solution, surprising as it may seem, is to prevent bugs from splattering themselves on all those essential sensors in the first place, designing the “tiara” (the structure that sits atop the vehicle’s roof, with a host of cameras, LiDAR and radar sensors) to funnel air through different slots in a way that creates an “air curtain” meant to deflect bugs away in a ways similar to the way the earth’s atmosphere deflects meteoroids away.

AV Sensor Bug Washer

The system isn’t perfect, as there are still some impacts, but there is a marked reduction in the number of times insects make contact with the structure. For those that do, Ford also integrated a power washing system similar to those used on some headlights and rear cameras. The cleaning system is able to detect when a camera lens needs washing and automatically sprays the area with enough spray to clean it without wasting washer fluid, then blow out air through the air passages to quickly dry it off.

As an added bonus, Ford points out, the system actually helps save insect lives.