This research aims to address the issue of safe navigation for autonomous vehicles in highly challenging outdoor environments. Indeed, robust navigation of autonomous mobile robots over long distances requires advanced perception means for terrain traversability assessment. Design/methodology/ approach - The use of visual systems may represent an efficient solution. This paper discusses recent findings in terrain traversability analysis from RGB-D images. In this context, the concept of point as described only by its Cartesian coordinates is reinterpreted in terms of local description. As a result, a novel descriptor for inferring the traversability of a terrain through its 3D representation, referred to as the unevenness point descriptor (UPD), is conceived. This descriptor features robustness and simplicity. Findings - The UPD-based algorithm shows robust terrain perception capabilities in both indoor and outdoor environment. The algorithm is able to detect obstacles and terrain irregularities. The system performance is validated in field experiments in both indoor and outdoor environments. Research limitations/implications - The UPD enhances the interpretation of 3D scene to improve the ambient awareness of unmanned vehicles. The larger implications of this method reside in its applicability for path planning purposes. Originality/value - This paper describes a visual algorithm for traversability assessment based on normal vectors analysis. The algorithm is simple and efficient providing fast real-time implementation, since the UPD does not require any data processing or previously generated digital elevation map to classify the scene. Moreover, it defines a local descriptor, which can be of general value for segmentation purposes of 3D point clouds and allows the underlining geometric pattern associated with each single 3D point to be fully captured and difficult scenarios to be correctly handled
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