Aerospace Tech Hits the (Autonomous) Road

How the tiny powerhouse part – an IMU – went from airplanes to self-driving cars

Aerospace technology has come down to earth. The same navigation technology that guides airplanes, drones and spacecraft is now being applied to self-driving cars.

Minnesota-based VSI Labs has been working to improve the performance of autonomous vehicles since 2014. Recently VSI turned to us for a critical navigation component called the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). We pioneered development of IMUs back in the mid-1990s, changing the face of aerospace navigation.

We’ve produced more of the sophisticated sensors than anyone else – more than 500,000 so far – and continue to improve the unit’s capabilities and expand its use outside aerospace.

What is an IMU?
Aerospace Tech Hits the (Autonomous) Road
An IMU uses gyroscopes, accelerometers and electronics – all packaged on single, small computer chip – to provide the navigation system with precise information. With an IMU onboard, the system always knows where it is, what direction it’s going and at what speed. It complements other systems onboard the autonomous vehicle, including laser-based detection systems and GPS, and provides vital position information when GPS signals aren’t available.

Navigating Automated Vehicles
“You could not build an automated vehicle without an IMU device,” said VSI Founder and Principal Advisor Phil Magney. “When you are operating an automated vehicle, the vehicle needs to have as much intelligence as possible to understand where it is…. The IMU helps reduce the error rate and maintain a trajectory that’s closer to ‘ground truth.’”

“Ground truth” is engineer-speak for the ability of a vehicle to know where it is in space. VSI officials credit the size, speed and accuracy of the IMU with providing the capability to improve performance and safety of autonomous vehicles.

VSI is helping set standards for self-driving cars, working closely with automakers and component suppliers. Tests at its Minneapolis-area proving grounds have been extremely successful in demonstrating test vehicles’ navigation capabilities under real-world conditions.


Aerospace Tech Hits the (Autonomous) Road

In the back of the specialized Kia Soul, an engineer updates algorithms in real-time. While the car is self-driving, a driver is always in place.

Beyond cars, IMUs are helping in other non-aerospace applications where precise positioning is required, including mining, oil and gas, and robotics.

Learn more about VSI’s use of IMUs here.