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Practice makes perfect? Managing and leveraging visual experiences for lifelong navigation

This paper is about long-term navigation in environments whose appearance changes over time – suddenly or gradually. We describe, implement and validate an approach which allows us to incrementally learn a model whose complexity varies naturally in accordance with variation of scene appearance. It allows us to leverage the state of the art in pose estimation to build over many runs, a world model of sufficient richness to allow simple localisation despite a large variation in conditions. As our robot repeatedly traverses its workspace, it accumulates distinct visual experiences that in concert, implicitly represent the scene variation – each experience captures a visual mode. When operating in a previously visited area, we continually try to localise in these previous experiences while simultaneously running an independent vision-based pose estimation system. Failure to localise in a sufficient number of prior experiences indicates an insufficient model of the workspace and instigates the laying down of the live image sequence as a new distinct experience. In this way, over time we can capture the typical time varying appearance of an environment and the number of experiences required tends to a constant. Although we focus on vision as a primary sensor throughout, the ideas we present here are equally applicable to other sensor modalities. We demonstrate our approach working on a road vehicle operating over a three-month period at different times of day, in different weather and lighting conditions. In all, we process over 136,000 frames captured from 37 km of driving.