Smart headlights could make rain ‘disappear’

Remember the joke solution to staying dry in the rain when you don’t have an umbrella? “I’ll just run between the raindrops.”

Well, something along those lines might actually be possible … at least for beams of light in the rain.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute are developing a “smart” headlight system that redirects light to shine between raindrops … essentially making it appear to the driver that it’s not raining nearly as hard as it is.

“If you’re driving in a thunderstorm, the smart headlights will make it seem like it’s a drizzle,” said Srinivasa Narasimhan, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon.

By doing that, the smart headlights could eliminate much of the glare that’s caused by headlight reflections off of drops of rain or flakes of snow. The system works by using a camera to track the motion of precipitation particles and then computing where those particles will be milliseconds later. The system then switches off the light beams that would reflect off those particles.

While that would make the headlights constantly flicker, it would all happen so quickly, the driver wouldn’t notice.

“A human eye will not be able to see that flicker of the headlights,” Narasimhan said. “And because the precipitation particles aren’t being illuminated, the driver won’t see the rain or snow either.”

In lab tests, the system has worked in the range of 13 milliseconds, which could — at low driving speeds — eliminate between 70 and 80 percent of visible rain during a heavy storm while reducing overall illumination by just 5 or 6 percent. Researchers are now working to speed up the system’s response time to just a few milliseconds, which would enable it to operate at highway speeds.

Smart headlights could also detect oncoming cars and lower the beams to avoid shining in another driver’s eyes.

“One good thing is that the system will not fail in a catastrophic way,” Narasimhan said. “If it fails, it is just a normal headlight.”

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