Adventures in Science: Autonomous Vehicles

In honor of the wonderful world of robotics, and the upcoming SparkFun Autonomous Vehicle Competition in October, we’re taking a look at a few advanced robotics topics that are helpful when building an autonomous robot of any sort.

How LIDAR Works

LIDAR, which is either a mashup of “laser” and “radar” or an acronym for “light detection and ranging” (depending on whom you ask), is the method of shooting a laser at an object and measuring the time it takes for that reflection to return to a receiver. With it, we can measure distances, determine the speed of moving cars, and map terrain. Here, we look at how LIDAR works and how it can be applied to robots to give them a means to detect objects.

How to Use Rotary Encoders

Rotary encoders are useful tools for measuring rotation on a shaft. They come in many different forms, including optical, mechanical, and magnetic. In this video, we show you how they work and how to use them on DC motors to ensure that a robot drives in a straight line for a set distance.

How GPS Works

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a collection of satellites, each containing a powerful and precise atomic clock, that broadcasts their time every 30 seconds. Handheld receivers, like your smartphone, can collect this data and perform calculations to figure out their position on the surface of the Earth.

In this episode, we talk about how GPS works and how you can use a receiver to obtain time, latitude, longitude, and altitude data with an Arduino. From there, your robot project could know its location and how to drive somewhere.

Using a Magnetometer as a Compass

A magnetometer is any instrument that can be used to measure magnetic fields. Developments in semiconductor and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) in the past few decades have afforded us digital magnetometers that can be used to take precise measurements of these fields. Because the Earth acts as a giant magnet, we can use magnetometers to find the direction of the Magnetic North Pole. This could be extremely useful on robots that need to determine a heading to, say, autonomously navigate a course.