Fasten your virtual seatbelts — it’s time for an off-road adventure in Mississippi State University’s Autonomous Vehicle Simulator, where researchers at MSU’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems are powering the future of unmanned all-terrain ground mobility.





Driverless Technology Goes Off-Road in MSU’s Autonomous Vehicle Simulator

Why follow the beaten path when untamed terrain holds so many exciting possibilities? That’s the trailblazing mindset behind the creation of Mississippi State University’s Autonomous Vehicle Simulator, or MAVS — a tool that augments MSU’s strengths in driverless research by providing off-road test capabilities.


MAVS is essentially a virtual proving ground where researchers can test autonomous software in a variety of digital environments and terrains. The simulator allows autonomy developers to test and debug algorithms in early stages and resolve flaws that could potentially lead to injury or vehicle and equipment damage during field testing.

MSU researchers also have access to an actual proving ground — a 50-acre property located near the CAVS facility where they test autonomous algorithms on real vehicles interacting with real environments.

MAVS is powered by Mississippi State’s expansive expertise in vehicle dynamics, engineering, robotics, computational physics, high-performance computing and related sciences, as well as a culture of interdisciplinary teamwork and collaboration.




“To create realistic driving scenarios, we pulled information from areas such as forestry, agronomy and ecology to understand how plants grow in different environments,” explains Chris Goodin, assistant research professor at CAVS. “Hydrologists helped us understand how moisture moves in soil and sand to better predict how tires will behave on different surfaces, and experts in computational fluid dynamics created dust flowing around the vehicle to test effects on performance.”



Goodin points out that most military ground vehicles are designed to travel off-road, which makes MAVS an indispensable tool for accelerating the shift to autonomy. One area of interest is developing autonomous vehicles with leader-follower capabilities. Experience shows that military truck convoys are vulnerable to attacks, but if the first vehicle is manned and others are driverless vehicles “trained” to follow, fewer troops will be in harm’s way.

Driverless vehicles are equipped with a multitude of sensors that process information about their surroundings and help them “decide” where to go and how to get there. Vehicles won’t get very far without reliable, accurate environmental sensing algorithms that enhance their intelligence and agility.






“It is easy to see our simulations of camera sensors in MAVS videos, but a lot of sensors that are used in a robot are not visual, such as GPS, accelerometers and LIDAR,” Goodin says. “All of those domains of physics need to work together and be perfectly synchronized for the whole process to work properly.”



When it comes to experiments involving human performance, there are many vehicle tests made possible by MAVS that are much more practical because of safety constraints. For example, researchers are using MAVS to conduct pedestrian detection and avoidance experiments by simulating human movements and behaviors in virtual environments.

MAVS also is creating a wealth of teaching, learning and research opportunities for faculty and students by providing hands-on experience in areas such as sensing perception, machine learning and autonomy.

Machine-learning algorithms developed by Mississippi State engineering students are not only improving vehicle capabilities but saving a tremendous amount of time and cost involved in image and data processing. Examples include algorithms that help vehicles recognize solid objects obscured by tall grass and estimate the density of overhead vegetation.




By opening new worlds of research data to graduate students, MAVS has been fertile ground for thesis and dissertation studies that have helped advance autonomous capabilities — for instance, by giving vehicles the capability to detect and quantify terrain roughness and recognize “negative obstacles” such as holes and ditches.

Mississippi State isn’t the only university benefiting from MAVS. The fact that MAVS is non-commercial, opensource software means any university in the state or country can use it. The MAVS technology also is available to private sector companies via licensing arrangements.

“We’re excited about the advances we’re making in autonomous education and research at Mississippi State, as well as the potential this technology holds for the future,” Carruth says. “Many universities don’t have the resources to create autonomous vehicles that we have here, but simulation can allow their students to study and research autonomy as well.

“MAVS is really an enabler to make sure the brightest students in Mississippi and beyond can study autonomy and make contributions to this field without any limitations based on the availability of resources,” Carruth says. “It’s also an entry way for other institutions to discover our capabilities at CAVS and open doors for new research and development opportunities. It’s not just about MSU — it’s about engaging with the world and making great things happen in the field of autonomous technology.”


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