Origins of autonomous technology

Written by: Natasha Kowalskyj, Social Media Summer Work Study
Edited by: Isabella Blandisi-Van Hee, Project Coordinator for Applied Research

Before the 21st century, the technology we are seeing today within an autonomous vehicle (AV), which allows the AV to fluidly operate, were long created, tested, and used in combat/defense (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). For example, sonar technology was first utilized as a means of detecting icebergs, but piqued interest during World War I with the threat of submarine warfare. As such, by 1916, a passive system of sonar consisting of towed lines and microphones, was developed and used to detect submarines (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). It was used strictly for underwater detection and, while there are autonomous aquatic vehicles today that use sonar, the AVs on the road are not utilizing sonar as it is only utilized while submerged under water.

In the previous blog post, the discussion was that current AVs are using technology like radar. Interestingly, Heinrich Hertz began developing the early radar system in the 1880s (Skolnik, 2018). Britain continued radar research for aircraft detection and by 1938, they had their first radar system called the “Chain Home.” Radar development was well underway, but by the beginning of World War II (WWII), Germany had progressed in the development of radar technology faster than any other country (Skolnik, 2018). It was used—at that time—as an all-day, all-weather, long-range sensor for target detection (Xu, Peng, Xia, & Farina, 2017).

Post WWII, the 90s saw an increase in radar information with the nature of the environment to be obtained from radar echoes— now in the 21st century, the advances in digital technology have allowed the improvement in signal and data processing, with a developmental goal of having all-digital phased-array radars in the near future (Skolnik, 2018). Lidar, as mentioned in a previous post, means light detection and ranging. Simply put, it is the technique for determining the distance to any object through use of a laser beam and measuring how long it takes the light to return to the transmitter (Gregersen, 2016). The first lidar efforts were made in the 1930s, where the height of clouds were determinable through light pulses and when the laser was invented in the 60s, it progressed to accompany the 1980s invention of the Global Positioning System (GPS) as well as inertial measurement units (IMUs). IMUs made accurate lidar data possible (Gregersen, 2016).

The GPS we know today has humble beginnings as the Navstar Global Positioning System, a space-based radio navigation system owned by the United States Government. It has allowed for accurate positioning, navigation, and timing to the world since its first launch in 1978 (Department of Defense, United States of America & NAVSTAR, 2008). Now, this multi-use development has grown into a tool that is used globally; applications include, safety, economic growth, transportation safety, and it is now imperative to the global economic infrastructure (Department of Defense, United States of America & NAVSTAR, 2008). This is especially pertinent for AVs in order to pinpoint where they are at any given time.

From this brief discussion, the hope is that you—the reader—now understand where these technologies started, what their original applications were, and how they have progressed to being imperative to an AV’s operation. Without these nearly hundred-year-old inventions, the technology we know today as “AV” would not be able to navigate itself, avoid obstacles, or have any autonomous awareness of its surroundings—ultimately, this is the “smart” factor. Even from the humble beginnings of these inventions, they have grown into some of the most intelligent and imperative technologies to date, and without their early applications, we simply would not be where we are today.


Department of Defense, United States of America & NAVSTAR. (2008). Global positioning system standard positioning service performance standard [PDF file] (4th ed.). Retrieved from

Encyclopedia Britannica (2019, May 16). Sonar. Retrieved from

Gregersen, E. (2016, October 13). Lidar. Retrieved from

Xu, J., Peng, Y.N., & Xia, X.G. & Farina, A. (2017). Focus-before-detection radar signal processing: Part i—challenges and methods. IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Magazine, 32(9), 48-59. doi: 10.1109/MAES.2017.160142

Skolnik, M, I. (2018, December 28). Radar. Retrieved from