Going it Alone... (Mostly)


NovAtel customers lead the way in autonomous systems in fields of endeavor as diverse as automated precision agriculture, driverless vehicles, machine control and military applications such as unmanned air systems. In all cases, the need for precise knowledge of position—absolute or relative—is a fundamental capability for successful operations.

For some, the ubiquity of GNSS has made precise positioning seem like a “job done,” and while it may be for low-fidelity tasks, NovAtel’s customers recognize the need for reliable, unmistakable positioning on which they can base critical and real-time decisions.

NovAtel’s role as an Original Equipment Manufacturer, or OEM supplier, is to provide what our customers need. To do that, we must truly understand customer requirements and language. In the case of autonomy, we see various industries use the term differently; so, we must adjust our response to ensure the success of our customers’ missions.

Autonomy versus Control

In the emerging commercial market, many manufacturers talk about different levels of autonomy. Such distinctions don’t exist in the military world: something is either autonomous or it isn’t. The military focuses on giving human operators the right level of control, a concept known as “Pilot Authority and Control of Tasks.”

On one end of the control scale, the machine can make no decisions at all; on the other end the machine makes all the decisions the human operator wants, within the parameters the operator has defined. If an aircraft is about to run out of fuel, for example, it will come back to the station, assuming the operator has given it authority to complete that specific task.

The operator’s level of control can also fall somewhere in between, which means the machine needs the operator to make certain types of decisions. At this level, when the aircraft is out of fuel, it will ask the operator what it should do before making a move.

The difference between manned and unmanned systems is this: with unmanned, there’s an operator, but one who isn’t sitting in the pilot’s seat. The operator always plays a role, which is why military users often refer to unmanned systems as remotely piloted air systems.