This new device will make self-driving cars dramatically safer…

This story was originally published here.

A breakthrough that could have implications for self-driving cars, autonomous drones, and even our smartphones caught my eye over the weekend.

The University of Michigan has produced a precision shell integrating gyroscope that is 10,000 times more accurate than the gyroscopes we use today.

Gyroscopes are tiny devices that determine position, acceleration, and rotation. They are often used in conjunction with GPS systems to help determine location second by second. Combined with GPS systems, they are used by navigation systems.

Here’s a visual of the University of Michigan’s new gyroscope technology:

A New Highly Accurate Gyroscope


Source: University of Michigan

We might not know it, but all our smartphones today contain gyroscopes. This device is what prompts our phones to light up when we pick them up. And it’s what prompts our phones to rotate to widescreen view when we turn them sideways.

However, the problem with existing gyroscopes is that they aren’t very accurate. They work just fine for phone rotations or sensing that the phone is being moved. But they aren’t suitable for more complicated applications like precise location tracking.

Cars – and, of course, self-driving cars – use GPS for navigation systems with backup support from onboard gyroscopes. As long as they have a connection to GPS satellites, they are fine. But cars lose GPS connection in certain areas like tunnels. That’s when cars use gyroscope technology as a backup.

The problem is that today’s gyroscopes are inaccurate for navigation. The longer a car goes without a GPS signal, the gyroscope rapidly falls off course.

For every minute driven at 50 km/h, the car would drift seven meters out of position (23 feet). And for every five minutes driven at that speed, the car will move 850 meters (roughly half a mile) out of position.

So after a minute of relying on a gyroscope, the car could be in the wrong lane or even off the road. And after five minutes, the car would be so far off that navigation wouldn’t be very useful.

Of course, self-driving cars know how to stay in a lane and avoid the shoulder of the road (or a ditch). They have plenty of sensors to make sure the car is safe. So the real issue is about accurate navigation and making sure the car understands exactly where it is on the road in any situation… even without GPS.

That’s where this new precision shell integrating gyroscope comes in. After one minute of driving, it reduces the potential for error to two millimeters. And after five minutes, its maximum positional error would be only 30 centimeters (about 12 inches).

So this is a great development. This new gyroscope will ensure that self-driving cars are always safe, even without GPS connection.

The cost to produce this kind of gyroscope is about 10 times what we use in our smartphones today (about $50). The additional cost will barely affect the price of a vehicle.