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Switching on visible headlights or some other emitting system like lidar has a significant drawback: It allows adversaries to detect a vehicle’s presence, in some cases from long distances away. The US military wants autonomous systems that can travel undetected while they navigate the darkest and least visible of environments without emitting any signals. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is researching autonomous vehicles with 3D vision that won’t radiate any type of signal. The autonomous vehicles would be able to see without being seen “at night, underground, in the Arctic, and in fog.”

The solution sought will 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, according to DARPA.

Joe Altepeter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, explained: “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.” 

“The Invisible Headlights program will develop solutions to eliminate this vulnerability by discovering how to transform the ambient thermal light present in all environments into a totally passive 3D sensor that is accurate enough and fast enough to support autonomous navigation,” the statement said.

According to, the Invisible Headlights program will have three phases:

  1. Discovery – to determine if thermal emissions contain sufficient information to enable autonomous driving at night or underground
  2. Optimization – to refine models, experimental designs, and ensure system feasibility for achieving 3D vision at both low speeds (<25 mph) and high speeds (>25 mph)
  3. Advanced Prototypes – to build and test passive demonstration systems that compete with active sensors.