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Honeywell and VSI Labs building autonomous cars on IMUs

How a tiny powerhouse part – the inertial measurement unit – 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, or IMU.

Honeywell says it pioneered the development of IMUs back in the mid-1990s, and it changed the face of aerospace navigation. (See video below.)

“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,” says Honeywell.

honeywell IS-IMU-aerospace
Above: An inertial measurement unit. Main picture: 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.

What is an IMU?

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.

“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.

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