The Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, specialises in the control and automation of space satellites, aircraft, and ground vehicles for many different applications. The Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL) was founded in 1992 and developed, amongst others, SUNSAT, the first South African satellite launched and commissioned in 1999. Since 2004, the ESL department has cultivated a strong research focus on robotics and autonomous vehicles aiming to solve real-life problems. This resulted in the creation of a number of private companies.
One of the ESL’s current areas of research is autonomous systems including autonomous vehicles, drones and so forth. This entails developing vehicles that can function completely independently, and are self-directed, self-governed, and self-sufficient. In true South African style, practical research is conducted with the aim of solving real control system problems. Practical research in this context means testing the vehicles’ self-sufficiency when presented with real-life conditions such as weather variability or dirt roads with many obstacles and not only in a controlled laboratory environment.
The result: Independent robot-vehicles having to determine – without a map or clearly-defined road – their location, the terrain they are operating on and how to navigate to the endpoint, autonomously.
Nevertheless, it is evident that autonomous vehicles have the potential for extremely wide fields of application for example when -used in mining operations these vehicles have the potential to be completely self-sufficient; or, when used in search and rescue operations it can be more effective and safe using autonomous vehicles.
How do we create autonomous systems that can handle real-life issues? This will be the subject of our next post.