Radar Supersenses for Racing: an idea for FIA Formula E and a cool Arduino weekend project

Giving “radar supersenses” to racing drivers to help them understand what’s happening behind their car

Every time I see a racing duel I always wonder: “How can they defend from an attack while at the same time don’t lose focus on trajectories and speed?” Rear mirrors are ridicously small and visibility is always reduced at bare-minimal levels.

So I had this is an idea to improve race safety and performance in motorsport by giving “radar supersenses” to racecar drivers to help them understand what’s happening behind their car. I wanted to find a minimal interface to suit a single seater and a very natural way to draw the driver’s attention toward rear mirrors only when necessary.

I developed this idea for the Magneti Marelli’s LaptimeClub open innovation initiative, a community for boosting innovation in motorsport, a very interesting open innovation project. I thought it could be fun to try to prototype this idea with Arduino to make a cool weekend project with my son.

…so this is the idea:

…And this is the full report of the project.

The premises

My new FIA Formula E passion

As many motorsport passionate I was a bit warm about pure electric racing cars, even if I’m a World Endurance Championship super-fan — the kind of fan falling into the Le Mans “car nerd” breed — I started getting used to hybrid LMP1 hybrid technological oddities well before the recent F1 wave of electrical innovations.

In september 2015 I was at the F1 Monza GP and I had the chance to talk with Riccardo de Filippi, Head of Development of Magneti Marelli Motorsport, who showed me this amazing electric engine and told me some funny stories about this new Formula E championship, with its crazy street circuit in fascinating locations and DJs playing live sets for the audience during the race.

Riccardo told me that while in London, they had to connect all the IT infrastructure in just one night so they started pre-assembling cables and routers in their hotel room and brought a hypercomplicated mess of half-mounted hyper-expensive hi-tech gear to the racing location to mount it in a hurry until dawn, to be ready for the racing action in the morning!

So I started getting more and more curious about Formula E and started looking for Formula E youtube videos, but only one week ago I could see a live race on Italian TV, in Putrajaya, Malaysia. What to say? It was an incredibly funny, competitive and messy buch of pure motorsport action!

A typical Formula E is a combination of uber-technical racing tracks, early stage and not-so-reliable cutting edge electric and electronic technology, complicated energy management strategies and very aggressive racing drivers striving to manage the always-at-hand massive electric engines torque. Add to this some peculiar oddities like a mandatory pit-stop to change vehicle at half race — batteries can’t still supply energy for an entire race —, a Facebook based “fan boost” to give one shot of extra power per race to the most popular drivers and safety leds on car body to confirm real power-off in case of engine failure, so that the driver can leave the car without shocking hazard.

A very impressive 360° video of the Bejing race start. You can use your mouse or flip around your tablet to look around

If you look what’s happening behind the car you can imagine how difficult it is for the driver to preserve situational awareness while driving on such a narrow circuit. This is common in every racing category, but in Formula E the cars are very quiet and the driver loses an indirect instinctive idea of what’s happening behind the car via auditory perception of opponents engine noise.

The idea

The most “second skin” interface for the maximum of situational awareness

Putting a radar on a car is not such an disruptive idea, even many slow heavy SUVs are equipped with, and there is at least a case of such an application in racing: the Pratt & Miller Radar Camera used by Corvette team in FIA WEC since 2013.

Sure it’s impressive, but it fits very well into the closed cockpit of a GT or of a Le Mans Prototype. It doesn’t suit a single seater or a motorbike, with open cockpit, two extra small mirror and very harsh light and visibility conditions.

And then, this solution seemed to me bulky, overcomplicated, very cool from a visual standpoint, but far from immediate and natural.

I wanted to explore how I could to go to the essence, to have the most minimal, most unobtrusive, the lightest solution and at the same time the most expressive one, the most effective balance between informational richness and second-skin, natural perception.

So I chose the most radical monitor configuration of all: a single strip of pixels.

The led strip perfectly suits an FIA Formula E single seater. And there are many advantages:

  • It’s natural and immediate to understand
  • The driver don’t have to look at the mirror
  • It’s immersive and far more second skin than an additional monitor.
  • The most critical areas, those at outmost right and left of the vehicle are mapped on the visual trajectory that the rear mirrors, naturally drawing the driver’s attention to the mirrors right when needed

The driver can focus on trajectories without losing situational awareness about what’s happening behind him.

It’s natural and simple, but how could we convey more situational information with our led strip display? The first informational dimension that we can add is distance. Surely the dimension of the light blob projected on the display can give indirect idea of oppositor cars distance, but only if all the cars al aligned on the same line.

Being distance the second most important information after position, I thougt blob dimension wasn’t enough accurate, so I decided to use light intensity to precisely map it.

But since I started exploring the informational possibilities of such a minimal display, I came to some interesting additional ideas.

1. “Under attack” led blinking signal

When an opponent reaches maximum alert position, a led start bliking. As the strip is aligned with rear mirror, this brings the driver’s attention directly to the right mirror.

2. Shape separation

When two oppositors are very close, the system must opportunely inform the driver that there are two distinct cars behind him and not an indistinct single radar blob. It’s such a tricky situation that after some tests I chose to replace the blank led with a blinking led for separating the two opponents lights, it’s more effective.

3. Blue flag

It’s rather frequent to see a driver being overtaken while he’s under blue flag.

If we integrate GPS real-time data with the radar supersenses system we can “put a name” on every radar blob and we can distinguish the lapping cars from the real oppositors, look at it as a situational aware blue flag.

4. Reducing barriers and walls noise

This is a rather complicated problem. With GPS data stream integration it could be easily solved. But I wanted to explore a pure approach, so I searched for some alternative solutions using only radar distances data.

How to test all these ideas with an Arduino project?

Let’s get technical… and start tinkering!

Ok, now the fun part: hands-on!

The most radical choice was to put a single ultrasonic sensor over a servo instead of making an array of ultrasonic sensors only to reduce the prototype costs. My focus was on general testing of the idea, better understanding the input of a distance sensor and mostrly on the led strip interface, not on making a real world car mountable system.

Parts list

  • Ultrasonic Module HC-SR04: it’s the core component, the most affordable alternative to expensive radar sensors. It’s very well supported by the Arduino community.
  • Adafruit NeoPixel Led Stick: Adafruit has developed this NeoPixel product series that makes very easy to manage even large numbers of pixel either on strip or on matrix configuration. It takes only one Arduino digital output to manage even hundreds of RGB led pixels. Adafruit provides a very easy to use Arduino library and a very interesting uberguide. I chose to use three led sticks instead of a flexible led strip because it was easier to mount over our lego cockpit and because the led stick had a very high led density.
  • A very basic Hitec Servo: I was not looking to extreme speed or precision, so I used an old servo.
  • A breadboard and some pre-built cables.
  • Foamcore: I love this material! Affordable and easy to work, it’s perfect to give shape to your ideas with minimum effort. If you don’t know what it is, take a look at this great Make article:

The electronic circuit

I used Fritzing to make this diagram, it’s a very useful oftware, I recommend it if you want to document your projects.

There’s not much to say about the electronic circuit, it’s very simple. The ultrasonic sensor takes two digital pins, one for the trig signal and one for the echo distance reading. The Arduino ultrasonic sensor libraries manage all the low-level aspects of sensor management, but if you want you can fine-tune sensor behaviour at the lowest level, it could be useful for managing large arrays of such sensors.

The Adafruit NeoPixel sticks need only one pin to manage and as does the servo. The rest is simply power management.

Mechanical assembly

The trickiest part was the sensor assembly over the servo. I made a foamcore base and after some trials, I had the idea of using an high density foam taken from a bijoux packaging. It was a perfect choice, very easy to work and quite professional-looking. Even if I can’t demonstrate it, I’m pretty sure it helps reducing micro vibrations affecting the quality of ultrasonic sensor data.

I used a drop of glue to fix the leds to the Lego cockpit, I paid some attention to solder the cables linking the leds to give a U shape to the three NeoPixel sticks.

The code

I tried to keep clear the code, the comments might help to further clarify it.

Some conclusions

On prototyping: It’s always an adventure, a journey into a vast territory of discovery. Every times it amazes me. Even a simple idea, or as in this case a re-interpretation of an existing one, forces you to deploy a vast number of problems, to try different technical choices and to reframe your problems. Modeling is surely one of the greatest engineering innovation, it reduces development costs by factors of ten and let engineers explore more possibilities at the same time. But from an educational point of view hands-on prototyping and tinkering are a hard to replace enriching technical and cultural experience!

On minimal interfaces: I work for a web publishing company, with the wave of mobile revolution I’m very often engaged into discussions about how to simplify, reduce out-of-point complexity, go to the essence in our products. But only when you work with the inerent limitations imposed by physical devices you are really forced to think of maximum informational expressiveness. Ok, it’s nothing new, it’s the old argument of the effectiveness of design by constraint, but I really reccomend this physical prototyping excercise to stress the ability of delivering information with bare-minimum interfaces, expecially to web professional that are used to work in a no-constraint mindframe.

Some days ago I stumbled upon this Medium article on the evolution, and “evaporation” of UI that I found very inspiring and I strongly reccommend:

On radar: while working on this project, I got impressed by the quantity of information you get back from distance sensors. Radar can trace physical world events in a very precise way, it’s fast and it works through obstacles as walls. With the computational power of the new generation of embedded devices and their ability to parse and process the data stream coming from radar sensors, you can get a very fine-grained information of physical interactions of all sorts. If you didn’t read the post linked above, take at least a look at this inspiring video on Project Soli.

On future directions of exploration: I’m getting very interested in tactile / haptic interfaces. I think that those non-visual interfaces will getting more and more important in all the mission critical situations, ans so in motorsport too. On this topic I reccomend you this very useful article from Interaction Design Foundation.

I’d like to try to apply the same idea of a radar sensing oppositor cars, but to use as interface some haptic feedback devices applied in the racing suit, perhaps applied on the driver’s shoulders. Or maybe make a whole new tactile project…

…And so it was fun, now it’s time to look for some new ideas!

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