8 May 2019

Out of This World

Out of this World Image

That Mars is a really, really long way away from Earth is something of a given, I know. But the sheer magnitude of that distance can be difficult to fully wrap your head around. 

Consider this; the circumference of this giant blue planet that we call home is some 40,000km. Which sounds like an awful lot, until you consider that - when it's at its absolute closest - Mars is 54.6 million kilometres away from Earth.

That means if you were to wrap a string around Earth, then lay that string flat, you would need to duplicate it 1365 times to get it anywhere near long enough to reach Mars.

Little wonder, then, that after launching on November 26, 2011, the Mars Rover didn’t actually touch down on the Red Planet until August 5th, 2012. And you thought your commute was brutal...

So yes, Mars is a really, really long way away. And yet, when you’re behind the wheel of an INFINITI, it’s almost as if you could reach out and touch it. 

See, the person behind that Rover program, which might well have been the most audacious autonomous-vehicle project of all time, is now working on the next-generation self-driving technology that will appear in INFINITI's future vehicles.

That person is Maarten Sierhuis, the Chief Technology Director at INFINITI’s research centre in Silicon Valley, and a 13-year veteran of the American space agency. Dr Sierhuis is leading a five-year collaboration project with NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California to develop INFINITI’s future autonomous systems.

“It was at NASA that I created much of what I’m putting to work for INFINITI today,” he says. “In fact, autonomous cars are even more challenging than space. In space, you just need to avoid the rocks, but on Earth you need to avoid a lot of other people."

For a closer look at NASA’s work, we climbed into the INFINITI Q50 Red Sport and headed to the agency’s Deep Space Communication Complex in Tidbinbilla, southwest of Canberra. The centre, managed by Australia’s CSIRO, forms part of NASA’s space communication network, and is playing a role in more than 30 missions, including that of the Mars Rover.

Some of Dr Sierhuis’ work has already begun appearing in INFINITI vehicles, like this Q50. Like the ProPILOT Assist system, which, using a network of laser scanners, radars and cameras, reads the road ahead to ensure the car stays safely in its lane, brakes for unexpected traffic or crossing pedestrians, and even safely steers around corners, all without the driver having to do anything.

The next step in INFINITI’s autonomous journey is the brand’s Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM) system, again developed with NASA. Future INFINITIs will be fully autonomous in most circumstances, but will use a human-in-the-loop system that, in the blink of a machine's eye, will contact a human-staffed control room for help in navigating unforeseen conditions, like an unexpected road closure or an accident ahead.

In those situations, a human would tap into the car’s external cameras and guide the vehicle through tricky conditions - all in around 20 milliseconds, and without bothering the car’s passengers. INFINITI, then, has boldly moved away from the idea of an autonomous vehicle being a closed loop, and instead recognised that, amidst the chaos that often engulfs our streets, there will always be a time when human intelligence needs to assist a vehicle's AI brain. Which, it should be pointed out, was exactly how the Mars Rover program worked. 

"It comes from my background at NASA. Because even if you take your spacecraft to the end of the universe, at some point you still need to communicate something back to a human," Dr Sierhuis says.

“The human-in-the-loop system comes in when there's a difficult decision, like a change in traffic or if you're dropping someone off at the airport. We built SAM from technology NASA developed for managing interplanetary rovers as they move around unpredictable landscapes." Which brings us neatly back to Mars. Some 54.6 million kilometres away, sure. And yet when it comes to your INFINITI, closer than you might ever have thought.


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