This $10 Laser Uses Your Smartphone to Turn a Wheelchair into an Autonomous Vehicle

Off-the-shelf parts and a $10 laser are the key to making autonomous vehicles.

4. 6. 16 by June Javelosa
Image by MIT

Infrared Systems

Researchers from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratoy (CSAIL) have developed a new infrared depth-sensing and rangefinding system that can work outdoors just as well as it can indoors.

This is already a significant improvement in the technology, given that measuring distance using infrared-based systems can easily be disrupted by ambient light. To work properly, they need to be indoors and require low-light conditions. Needless to say they are practically useless when used outside.

To minimize the danger that these high-energy bursts might have on the eye, they need to be fired in short bursts. They also happen to be quite expensive.

MIT System

MIT’s system not only has the advantage of being more affordable and accessible but is also more effective.


To do this, the team times its high-energy bursts versus the emission of low-energy bursts by capturing four video frames—two meant to measure reflections of laser light and another two to record ambient infrared light. It will then subtract the ambient light from the laser light to determine range measurements.

Their device was built simply by attaching a $10 laser to a smartphone—which means consumers can attach it to small, personal vehicles such as wheelchairs to make it autonomous.

“My group has been strongly pushing for a device-centric approach to smarter cities, versus today’s largely vehicle-centric or infrastructure-centric approach,” says Li-Shiuan Peh, who leads the study.

“This is because phones have a more rapid upgrade-and-replacement cycle than vehicles. Cars are replaced in the timeframe of a decade, while phones are replaced every one or two years. This has led to drivers just using phone GPS today, as it works well, is pervasive, and stays up-to-date. I believe the device industry will increasingly drive the future of transportation.”


The researchers hope that the device can be incorporated into delivery drones, for example, where the use of previous generations of laser sensors has proven to be prohibitively expensive. Ultimately, it means accelerating the “autonomy revolution”—machines and robots that can navigate and map their own way through the world.

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