Military Embedded Systems

DARPA seeks to develop "virtual headlight" sensors for UASs


March 05, 2020

Lisa Daigle

Assistant Managing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

DARPA seeks to develop "virtual headlight" sensors for UASs
Graphic: DARPA

ARLINGTON, Va. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has embarked on a new program that it calls "Invisible Headlights," with the goal of developing sensors and algorithms to enable unmanned systems to navigate at night or underground.

Autonomous and semi-autonomous systems need active illumination to navigate at night or underground, but switching on visible headlights or some other emitting system like lidar runs the risk of alerting adversaries to detect a vehicle’s presence, in some cases from long distances.

Since everything -- animate and even inanimate objects -- emits some thermal energy, the goal is to discover what information can be captured from even an extremely small amount of thermal radiation and then develop novel algorithms and passive sensors to transform that information into a 3D scene for navigation.

The object of Invisible Headlights is to enable completely passive navigation even in pitch-dark conditions, stated Joe Altepeter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “In the depths of a cave or in the dark of a moonless, starless night with dense fog, current autonomous systems can’t make sense of the environment without radiating some signal -- whether it’s a laser pulse, radar or visible light beam -- all of which we want to avoid. If it involves emitting a signal, it’s not invisible for the sake of this program.”

“If we’re successful, the capability of Invisible Headlights could extend the environments and types of missions in which autonomous assets can operate – at night, underground, in the arctic, and in fog,” Altepeter said. “The fundamental understanding of what information is available in ambient thermal emissions could lead to advances in other areas, such as chemical sensing, multispectral vision systems, and other applications that exploit infrared light.”

A Proposers Day is scheduled for March 16, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia, with a webcast available for those participating online. For registration details, those interested can visit


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