NovAtel customers lead the way in autonomous systems in fields of endeavor as diverse as automated precision agriculture, driverless vehicles, machine control and military applications such as unmanned air systems. In all cases, the need for precise knowledge of position—absolute or relative—is a fundamental capability for successful operations.

For some, the ubiquity of GNSS has made precise positioning seem like a “job done,” and while it may be for low-fidelity tasks, NovAtel’s customers recognize the need for reliable, unmistakable positioning on which they can base critical and real-time decisions.

NovAtel’s role as an Original Equipment Manufacturer, or OEM supplier, is to provide what our customers need. To do that, we must truly understand customer requirements and language. In the case of autonomy, we see various industries use the term differently; so, we must adjust our response to ensure the success of our customers’ missions.

Autonomy versus Control

In the emerging commercial market, many manufacturers talk about different levels of autonomy. Such distinctions don’t exist in the military world: something is either autonomous or it isn’t. The military focuses on giving human operators the right level of control, a concept known as “Pilot Authority and Control of Tasks.”

On one end of the control scale, the machine can make no decisions at all; on the other end the machine makes all the decisions the human operator wants, within the parameters the operator has defined. If an aircraft is about to run out of fuel, for example, it will come back to the station, assuming the operator has given it authority to complete that specific task.

The operator’s level of control can also fall somewhere in between, which means the machine needs the operator to make certain types of decisions. At this level, when the aircraft is out of fuel, it will ask the operator what it should do before making a move.

The difference between manned and unmanned systems is this: with unmanned, there’s an operator, but one who isn’t sitting in the pilot’s seat. The operator always plays a role, which is why military users often refer to unmanned systems as remotely piloted air systems.

We’re Not Replacing Humans

Whatever the depth of an automated system’s decision making, in the end achieving the wanted outcome comes from a collaboration between the processing computer and the operator or supervisor. This has been examined closely in the field of defense.

As a 2012 U.S. Defense Science Board report, “The Role of Autonomy in DoD Systems,” explained it, the value of unmanned systems is not the replacement of humans but rather improvement in persistence of operations, keeping the operator out of danger, and reducing “cognitive load” on humans. Much like other authorities on autonomous systems, they promote a framework that seeks to allocate cognitive functions and responsibilities between the human and the computer. 

This approach allows the operator to focus on what humans do best: making complex recognition and value judgments while leaving the mechanization of tasks to the autonomous system. In the example of an unmanned combat air system, the flying “stick and throttle” and navigating decisions may be left to the system while the responsible operator retains the authority to make strategic and value judgments.

However automated the system, the human operator ultimately remains in control. The “Person to Purpose” approach described in work led for the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) by Dr. Jon Platts, shows how the human supervisor retains absolute authority while being detached from ownership of the platform (or multiple platforms), freeing the operator to concentrate instead on the actual tasks.

But we needn’t get too wrapped up in definitions. As Professor Mary Beard once wrote, definitions are often false friends: “The smartest and appealing tend to exclude too much; the most judicious and broadest are so judicious as to be unhelpfully dull.” Our job at NovAtel is to give customers what they need, not tell them how to define autonomy. But to do that, we have to understand what they’re talking about.

Autonomous Vehicles

Many of today’s cars already have sensors that provide them some level of perception of the environment. These include such sensors as radar, camera, LiDAR and ultrasonics, says NovAtel’s Segment Manager for Autonomous Systems, Siamak Akhlaghi. These sensors, in conjunction with high precision GNSS provide the localization, reliability and accuracy required for vehicle autonomy. Localization and environmental/situational awareness are fundamental for automating the driving function.

Unlike military systems, commercial vehicles are rated with different levels of autonomy. Level 5 represents full autonomy—(i.e., acceleration/handling/control functions handled by the automobile with no involvement of a driver), which Akhlaghi predicts is at least five years from becoming a reality.Peter 1

Level 3 vehicles (i.e., two to three of the acceleration/handling/control functions performed by the vehicle), which is about where we are now, feature some level of autonomy. At this level, the algorithms/sensors are not advanced enough, so the driver must be sitting in the car and ready to make decisions when necessary. At Level 4 (i.e., acceleration/handling/control performed by the automobile with an operator taking over control in an emergency situation), a driver no longer needs to maintain control at all times.

Although unmanned systems have been around for many years, in the military world, autonomous vehicles are still a new concept for civil and commercial operations, and they come with their own set of challenges. Legal restrictions make it difficult to test these vehicles, which must also learn to comply with traffic lights, stop signs and the other rules of the road. They also must learn to avoid pedestrians, street furniture, and other roadway obstacles, all of which make precise positioning vital for autonomous vehicles.

NovAtel’s Precise Positioning Contribution to Autonomy 

For an operator to trust an autonomous system, whether it’s a ground vehicle or an aircraft, the subsystems must be reliable and provide unambiguous information so that the autonomous system can do its job. Precise positioning is, therefore, a vital supporting capability for autonomy.

It is also important for the precise positioning system to have robustness and independent failure modes and to tell you when something is wrong. That’s why many autonomous system manufacturers turn to NovAtel. We provide receivers that can use all Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and feature tightly–coupled GNSS integration with inertial systems, plus protection with GPS Anti-Jam Technology (GAJT®). We provide the assured positioning that enables these machines to do their jobs, whether the application is for a military purpose or a commercial one.

In military circles, the business of ensuring precise positioning is always available and, indeed, denying it to adversaries is called navigation warfare or “NAVWAR.” And, the good news about the Electronic Protection (EP) discipline of NAVWAR is that the protection measures are additive. So, one does not have to choose between multi-frequency/multi-constellation GNSS, SPAN and GAJT because their protective effects are complementary.

Finally, authorized military customers have access to the additional benefit of the encrypted GPS Precise Positioning Service (PPS), using the Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM). NovAtel has teamed with L3 Interstate Electronics Corporation to produce the OEM625S, which provides the anti-spoofing protection of SAASM with NovAtel’s centimetre-level precision. And, because it comes in a form factor compatible with NovAtel’s OEM628 triple-frequency, multi-constellation receiver, which is used widely by the unmanned aerial systems community, manufacturers can now develop their products using the open-signal, commercial off-the-shelf system and segue to the SAASM-RTK OEM625S when needed.

As the commercial market continues to grow, manufacturers must be on the same page with their clients if they are going to provide them with what they need. At NovAtel we’re working to improve communication and provide our clients with the precise positioning that they need to succeed, no matter how they refer to autonomy.