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Ford uses 'bug launcher,' synthetic bird scat for sensor-cleaning tests

Keeping sensors clean is increasingly important in the age of autonomous vehicles.

Ford has shed light on an underappreciated element of autonomous technology development: sensor cleaning technology.

The company has tasked engineers with developing new methods to prevent insects and road grime from interfering with sensor data that is necessary to operate self-driving vehicles.

Researchers have built a "makeshift bug launcher" to shoot insects onto sensors at high speeds. The team has also created homebrew "synthetic" bird droppings to smear on camera lenses.

Ford employees have already submitted 50 patents related to self-driving cleaning and structural systems. One innovation creates an air curtain around the sensor 'tiara' pod, blowing insects and other objects out of the way before they contact lenses.

"This method was remarkably successful," says Ford autonomous vehicle systems core supervisor Venky Krishnan. "With bugs, for example, our tests showed that the air curtain successfully diverted the vast majority of them away from our self-driving sensors."

Some insects still make it past the air curtain, requiring an advanced cleaning system that uses software to detect a dirty lens and trigger a spray nozzle pointed at the besoiled sensor. Air is then routed against the surface to quickly dry off the cleaning solution.

Other companies pursuing autonomous technology are presumably developing similar methods to keep sensors clean enough to maintain an acceptable picture of the road ahead.

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