DARPA Wants to Produce Invisible Headlights


The agency is exploring how thermal energy might one day enable 3D vision.

Even without drivers, most autonomous and semi-autonomous systems need light to navigate in the dark. But in dangerous, unlit environments, visible headlights can draw attention to those vehicles that would rather go unseen during missions. 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aims to “eliminate this vulnerability” through its newly unveiled Invisible Headlights program. Through it, the Pentagon’s research arm aims to explore the potential for thermal energy to enable 3D vision and ultimately help autonomous and semi-autonomous systems more safely navigate at night and in foggy or underground environments.

“We’re aiming to make completely passive navigation in pitch dark conditions possible,” Joe Altepeter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office said in a recent announcement.

Every animate and inanimate thing on the planet gives off thermal energy. With that in mind, DARPA said it wants to find out and quantify precisely what information can be captured from the tiniest bit of thermal radiation, and then work to “develop novel algorithms and passive sensors to transform that information into a 3D scene for navigation.” The hope is that that thermal energy might help the systems visualize their surroundings without emitting any light.

Altepeter said today’s autonomous systems can’t make sense of dark domains without radiating some sort of signal, including light beams and laser pulses, which the agency now seeks to avoid. 

“If it involves emitting a signal, it’s not invisible for the sake of this program,” Altepeter said. 

DARPA plans to release a broad agency announcement with more information on the effort at some point in March, and will also hold a proposer’s day on March 16 in Arlington.