Get in the Driver’s Seat of Off-road Autonomy

June 17, 2024
1 min read

While on-road autonomy systems excel in navigating well-marked roads and managing interactions with other road users under predictable conditions, off-road autonomy must contend with an array of unpredictable elements, such as rugged terrain and varying weather conditions. Off-road autonomy spans multiple industries that demand more versatile and robust solutions than their on-road counterparts. These industries face critical operational challenges that directly impact productivity and safety. 

  • In construction and mining, autonomous software can enable machinery to operate round-the-clock in hazardous or inaccessible areas, while enhancing safety and efficiency. 
  • Agriculture benefits from continuous precision farming techniques that can be optimized through autonomous systems, leading to better crop management and reduced waste. 
  • In defense, the strategic advantage of using unmanned vehicles in reconnaissance and active missions is that they can enhance capabilities and protect personnel in hostile or unpredictable environments. 
  • Improving operator safety through system alerts and reducing cognitive load through driving assistance and visual aids can provide value in all of the industries above.

This blog post will discuss the unique technical barriers that need to be addressed to advance off-road autonomy. We will explore the integration of advanced sensor fusion techniques, the development of ruggedized operational platforms, and the adaptation of AI and machine learning (ML) to navigate and interpret unstructured environments effectively.

The Need for Specialized Off-Road Autonomy Solutions

One of the biggest changes for an autonomy system when going from on-road to off-road is the requirement to handle unstructured terrain. On-road environments are more predictable, consisting of paved roads with painted lane lines. The area in front of the vehicle is assumed to be safe to drive on; at most, the vehicle’s autonomy system might need to detect degraded lane boundaries or avoid the inconvenience of a pothole. Many L4 AV companies rely on high-definition offline maps that reduce the demands on the online perception system. With these simplifying assumptions, on-road autonomy systems are able to largely ignore the problem of terrain handling and focus all their attention on agent detection and interaction.

Off-road environments lack this structure and the ground must be assessed for safety—ditches, divots, or severe slopes that could cause the vehicle to roll over. Variations in weather conditions such as ice, snow, or mud significantly impact drivability. More importantly, the terrain must be approached with fresh eyes each time, as conditions can change on a moment’s notice, pushing modern mapless autonomy to its limits. To list a few more concrete challenges that are unique to off-road driving:

  • Bird’s eye view limitations: On-road autonomy systems typically operate in the bird’s eye view (BEV), projecting the road surface and any obstacles into a 2D BEV and ignoring the vertical dimension. But off-road environments contain vertically stacked layers of information that cannot always be reduced to a single 2D representation. For example, the terrain surface underneath foliage must be estimated to ensure that the ground surface is safe for an off-road vehicle to traverse through foliage. 
  • Accurate elevation understanding: It is crucial to identify potential hazards such as dangerous slopes, ditches, or holes. Applied Intuition’s systems achieve this through precise 3D elevation mapping, ensuring vehicles can navigate safely without becoming stuck or rolling over.
  • Terrain semantics: Planning and controls must distinguish between traversable and obstructive elements. Foliage, which vehicles may drive through, requires differentiation from impassable objects like boulders. Surface characteristics—whether muddy, rocky, or icy—also inform vehicle control strategies. 
  • Terrain changes: Weather conditions and vegetation growth can drastically alter the landscape, making reliance on outdated maps unreliable. Applied Intuition’s mapless approach uses real-time data to adapt to these changes, enhancing navigation accuracy and operational reliability.

Applied Intuition’s Off-Road Autonomy Stack

At Applied Intuition, we leverage modern ML-based approaches to develop advanced perception systems that understand the world in both geometric and semantic terms. The state-of-the-art sensor fusion algorithms in our off-road autonomy stack enhance the capabilities and robustness of our systems, enabling effective navigation in the most challenging environments.

Features include:

  • Mapless localization: Our mapless localization technology is a critical feature for navigating off-road environments where traditional maps are either unavailable or insufficiently detailed. Instead of relying on pre-existing maps, our systems use real-time sensor data to localize the vehicle within its surroundings. This approach allows for greater flexibility, as the vehicle can adapt to new or changing terrains without the need for frequent map updates. This is particularly valuable in dynamic environments such as construction sites or areas affected by natural elements like flooding or landslides.
  • Off-road perception: The core of the stack, our off-road perception technology, is engineered to precisely interpret and navigate through unstructured natural environments. These systems use a variety of sensors including lidar, camera, and radar to scan and interpret the terrain continuously. This sensory input is processed using a combination of learned and geometric algorithms to differentiate between various types of obstacles (like rocks, trees, and water bodies) and terrain features (such as slopes and ground textures). The ability to accurately perceive and understand these elements in real time is essential for safe and efficient navigation, ensuring that the vehicle can respond appropriately to both visible and hidden hazards.

Figure 1: Perception system with detailed 3D geometry and semantic understanding of off-road environments.

  • Universal planning architecture: Applied Intuition’s universal planning architecture supports a wide range of off-road applications, from agricultural vehicles to heavy-duty mining equipment. This adaptive system tailors its strategies to various payloads and terrain types, optimizing pathfinding and maneuverability for each specific scenario. It dynamically adjusts decision making to deliver a single, cohesive system deployable across diverse industries. 
  • Integration and customization: Our off-road autonomy stack can be seamlessly integrated with existing systems and tailored to meet the specific requirements of different vehicle types and operational needs. This flexibility allows for enhanced adaptability across industries, ensuring that vehicles can operate effectively regardless of the unique challenges they encounter. 
  • Modularity: The architecture of our off-road autonomy stack is designed to be modular, meaning that different components can be added, removed, or upgraded independently. This modularity facilitates easier updates and maintenance, allows for scalability depending on the complexity of the task, and enables customization to specific mission requirements without overhauling the entire system.
  • Embedded compute: Applied Intuition designs its systems with practical hardware constraints in mind from the outset, in contrast to other autonomy programs that may defer such considerations. In addition to the typical constraints of edge computing, off-road vehicles require ruggedized embedded compute platforms. This integrated approach encompasses systems engineering, digital design, requirements traceability, and safety case development, leveraging extensive software, hardware, and vehicle platform expertise.

The off-road autonomy stack works with Applied Intuition’s base vehicle software platform and supports third-party integrations, secure environment testing and data management. It can also be used in conjunction with Applied Intuition’s definitive ADAS and AD development platform for simulation-driven development.

Contact us to learn more about Applied Intuition’s off-road autonomy stack and how Applied Intuition can help accelerate your team’s off-road autonomy development.