Inertia – Another essential ingredient for driverless vehicles

Inertia – Another essential ingredient for driverless vehicles

I know of at least three driverless R&D vehicles which rely on an inertia-based sensor to act as a back-up or supporting technology to other methods of path plotting and navigation (usually a combination of GPS and Lidar, depending on the hardware and software deployed). 

While the systems found in commercial jet liners might cost tens of thousands, and boast extraordinary accuracy over thousands of miles (and have a price tag to match), inertial measurement within a smartphone might have coarser accuracy and cost a few pennies.  Needless to say, the units often found in autonomous vehicles sit somewhere in between – both in terms of cost and resulting accuracy.

As we know, it’s important to have a back-up system to provide a fail-over in case the first one or two fail, or don’t have enough data – that’s the same for navigation as it is for obstacle avoidance or dealing with difficult weather or terrain – but inertial navigation is far from perfect. 

Special thanks to Tiziano Fiorenzani, UAV Design, Guidance and Control Expert, who kindly gave us permission to share his blog on how inertia measurement works.  This is part of a mini series of personal blogs he’s producing about the main sensors that are commonly part of any drone – you can get more updates by following Tiziano on LinkedIn.

What is an IMU?

IMU stands for for Inertial Measurement Unit, and in fact, measures “inertial quantities”, as accelerations and angular velocities. Those quantities can be used directly for  an automatic feedback control loop (eg, the gyro that stabilizes RC helicopters) or we can process their data out and estimate the Attitude (roll, pitch, yaw or quaternion).

What is inside an IMU?

Usually an IMU consists of the following sensors:

  • 3-axis accelerometer: measures the accelerations along its axes
  • 3-axis gyroscope: measures the rotational velocity around its axes
  • 3-axis magnetometer: measures the local magnetic field components along its axes

This setup is made out of 9 sensors (3 sensors on 3 axes), so it is generally referenced as 9-DOF IMU.

Accelerometers

Accelerometers sense all the accelerations applied to them, even those due to vibrations or manoeuvres. Isolation is of primary importance as well as an accurate calibration.

There is a simple way to figure how an accelerometer works. Take a scale and put a weight on it, say 1 kg (or 1 lb if you like, but I’ll stick with the International System). The scale will show you 1 kg, because the object’s mass of 1 kg, subject to the gravity acceleration of g = 9.8 m/s^2 (1 g), will experience a force of F = mg = 9.8 N (Newton), that is 1 kg force. Easy enough. Now, if you grab the scale and suddenly moved it upward, you would read that the same object has grown heavier. What does it mean? Well, the scale measures the vertical component of the forces applied to it: naming a the upward acceleration we impressed, the same mass m multiplied by a higher acceleration (g + a) results in a higher force F = m(g+a).

The sensor converts the acceleration into a voltage, which is later translated into a binary number that an autopilot can understand.

There are different types of accelerometers, though the most common are Capacitive and Piezoelectric, which basically measure voltage variations due to the sensor’s deformation. Check the references for more details.

When an accelerometer is used as inclinometer, the gravity vector components at rest are measured in order to evaluate the tilt angle as:

You can verify the effectiveness of an inclinometer with your own smartphone: install an app and verify if a painting has been hanged on the wall on a level plane. It won’t be straight if you move your phone, as the inclinometer is affected by the extra accelerations you cause.

Gyroscopes (usually shortened to ‘gyros’)

Gyros measure the rotational velocity around their axis.

Let’s simplify how it works by imagining a tiny mass, connected to a housing by micro springs and forced to oscillate at a constant frequency. Then imagine the housing connected to the frame by traversal springs.

Any rotation of the system will induce Coriolis force in the mass, pushing it in the direction of the second set of springs (if you are not familiar with Coriolis, check the references below, but basically is a force that applies to something that accelerates in a non inertial frame, like the Foucault pendulum).

The displacement is measured by sensors that are along the mass housing and the rigid structure. As the mass is pushed by the Coriolis force, a differential capacitance will be detected.

Even if the principle is different, and is not based on Coriolis force, one way to visualize a rotational velocity is the swing ride (even though when you kick your partner out he will experience Coriolis force…).

The faster the swing spins, the higher you go. That is because of that fictitious force named centrifugal, that is actually the chain preventing you to fly away. Your altitude is basically a measure of the ride’s speed.

Measuring the rotational velocity is of primary importance, as it can be integrated to obtain an estimate of the actual tilt angle and represents a great signal for feedback control loops. Unfortunately, gyros are noisy and their output at rest varies with the temperature.

Magnetometers

Magnetometers… I hate them! Seriously! But, they are the only sensor that can give your heading. A magnetometer measures the local magnetic field components and you can compare those values with the World Magnetic Field Model in order to estimate the attitude, and thus the heading respect to the local magnetic North. Why do I hate them? Because almost everything affects the local magnetic field… electric lines, Sun activities, internal wiring, other sensors, transmitters or even the CPU… That is the reason why you want to put your magnetometer as far from any interference as possible. Still what you measure is your attitude respect to the local magnetic field: the local declination is added up in order to obtain the heading respect to the true North.

If you want to have an idea of how the magnetic field is easily affected by external disturbances, use a compass or install an app on your phone and try to walk in the office, close to the computers or metal objects: you’ll see the needle going nuts.

Miniaturized magnetometers are based on the Anisotropic Magnetoresistance phenomenon: basically the material changes its internal electric resistance when exposed to a magnetic field: check the references for more details.

Calibration

Sensors would be useless without a proper calibration. For accelerometers and magnetometers you would probably do it once in a while, while gyros need to be calibrated every time before starting.

Why calibrate? Because the output signal is usually as:

measure = scale_factor*signal + bias + noise (m = sf*s + b + n)

The real signal is multiplied by a scale factor and then corrupted by an almost static bias value and a random noise.

While the noise can be easily filtered out, scale factor and bias are almost constant, thus they must be evaluated properly.

For the gyros, the bias is easily estimated before flying, when the vehicle is assumed to be still on the ground, so the actual measured rotational speed is only the bias component.

For accelerometers and magnetometers, the procedure is a little more complex, but basically you want to put your autopilot at different angles and estimate the best fitting sphere out of the measured quantities.

What have we learned

The world of autopilot surely is intriguing. We have just begun to scratch the surface and we still have a long road ahead. IMUs are fundamental to Robotics and Drones just as much as smartphones.

References

SensorWikiaccelerometersCoriolis forceFoucault pendulumgyrosEarth Magnetic Modelaccelerometer calibrationmagnetometer calibration algorithm

50+ vehicle perception videos

We’ve written about who this project is aimed at, but for people already working in vehicle perception or ADAS, as the industry generally talks about, what we have to offer through Self Driving Track Days really is too broad.

For those image processing engineers, machine learning developers, data engineers and roboticists already working on advanced driver assistance systems and automotive research and development, we have a sister event: AutoSens.

Running in Europe (Brussels, Belgium) and the US (Detroit, Michigan) every year, the AutoSens vehicle perception conference is the leading conference and exhibition for engineers working in the vehicle perception industry.

The event generally sees around 300 professionals from across the supply chain taking part in dozens of conference sessions on photon-sensor based detection, signal fusion, environment processing, and deployment.

As an industry-only event, cutting edge technologies at component level are demonstrated and discussed – technologies which will be used in production vehicles of the future.  One example of this is the broad understanding that dynamic (i.e. moving, high resolution) LIDAR units are only suitable for R&D, and that the future lies with solid state LIDAR.  This has prompted much questioning in the mainstream media over when these technologies will become available – and yet half a dozen companies were displaying these as finished products at AutoSens in 2016.

What this told us is that there is a significant disconnect between what the industry is really doing and what the media are talking about, and this can only be improved by educating people and of course, the media.  At the tip of the hype cycle, there is a great hunger for news and not necessarily a great deal of background research or context for the innovation or idea.

Without trying to meet every person face to face (a near impossible task, despite our efforts in the UK with countless networking events) or read every article, the best way to do this is by making useful information available to everyone, for free.

So, we have uploaded every conference session from the event to AutoSens on YouTube, more than 50 presentations from car manufacturers and suppliers, universities, engineers, technologists, researchers, AI specialists and more – so everyone can have that knowledge for free.

Explore the videos and playlists on the AutoSens video portal.

Interview: Nicolas Du Lac, CEO of Intempora

Nicolas Du Lac, CEO of Intempora

As part of the Self Driving Track Days project, we are keen to bring real industry experience out from behind closed doors and make it available to the next generation of potential engineers and innovators in the driverless technology sector.

Nicolas du Lac is the CEO of Intempora – Multisensor software solutions.  Graduated in 2000 from the famous engineering school Mines-ParisTech in France, with a major in Robotics. He was quickly recognized for his skills in development software and algorithms and worked for a few months at the CEA (the widely respected French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission) as software engineer, and joined Intempora in 2001

The company had just been created based on the RTMaps technology (Real-Time Multisensors Applications), developed initially from the Center of Robotics of Mines-ParisTech.

The company’s Chief Technology Officer since 2002, he led the development of multi-sensor software solutions and participated in numerous research project as DARPA Urban Challenge (Dotmobil Team) with the INRIA research institute in 2007.  Due to his work and involvement in the company, he was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of Intempora in June 2012.

Today, he manages the strategic and the embedded software development for ADAS and automated driving.

Tell us about the company – where are you based and what do you do… We understand you have a long background in autonomous software development?

Intempora was created in 2000 based on the RTMaps software framework which core technology has been developed from 1998 at the Center of Robotics of Mines-ParisTech. Researchers were already working on computer vision and data fusion algorithms for perception applications in ADAS and Autonomous Vehicles prototypes.

At this time, we were working on Pentium computers, with PAL analog cameras and first samples of Lidar and radar sensors.

Now the market is booming and we have accumulated more than 15+ years experience in developing software solutions. This long experience allows us to propose a mature and easy-to-use solution with unprecedented execution performance for testing and the development of complex algorithms, ADAS applications and Automated Driving systems.

What about Artificial intelligence?

There is much hope around artificial intelligence and encouraging results. However, it is still uncertain how to integrate such algorithms in autonomous vehicles and put them on the road, particularly when it comes to validation and certification against the ISO26262 standard.

At Intempora we are working on solutions with partner such as dSPACE to provide testing and a validation toolchain to allow the management of high volumes of recorded sensor data in large-scale computing architectures in an efficient manner.

This year started with lots of activity at CES – you were there – what were the highlights?

It is fun to see how the autonomous vehicles topic is now trusting the generic Consumer Electronics Show (apart from the thousands of IoT startups which were there as well). Most of our customers and partners were there and presented really nice demonstrations on so many topics (new sensors at LeddarTech, new systems for perception at VALEO and NAVYA, driver HMIs at Visteon, simulators at ESI-Group, communication, safety and security, etc.) It was interesting as well to see how companies like NVidia could present their GPU technologies used for both gaming and machine learning for Automated Driving.

RTMaps is your main product for managing sensor fusion, what other systems does it work with?

RTMaps (Real-Time Multisensor Applications) is not only a sensor fusion tool, it really helps developers build multimodal applications faster and in an efficient way (advanced HMIs, driver monitoring, communication systems,…). It is a generic software integration tool with hardly no overhead in terms of CPU consumption and a huge set of off-the-shelf software components to be integrated in a few clicks. It allows for your team (engineers, researchers, students) to focus on advanced algorithms and on managing multiple high-bandwidth data streams from various sensors (cameras, LiDARs, radars, CAN bus, GPS, Eye trackers, Biometrics, etc…), you can easily reduce costs and development cycles on your algorithms.

We have recently opened the RTMaps Components Store and the accompanying partnership program to go one step further and propose a way for algorithms and function providers to deliver their code in the form of RTMaps components, hence facilitating their integration and test in customer applications. Anyone interested in joining the ecosystem as technical partners is welcome.

Do you work with Car brands (OEMs) or always with Tier 1 and other Tier 2 companies?

We definitely work with OEMs, Tier 1 and Tier 2 companies, but also with universities, education and research institutes. We work more and more outside of Europe with customers in the US and in Asia. This is boosted with the recent partnership we established with dSPACE, for instance.

All this ecosystem is coherent and the benefits of efficient software tooling for their internal developments but also for establishing partnerships, exchanging software modules and datasets.

Of course these companies have different activities and use our software solutions in different manners (from sensors and systems testing and benchmarking up to real development of advanced embedded systems).

This is a great opportunity for us to adapt our solutions constantly to provide efficiency and ease-of-use in different environments and of course a better user experience.

Note that RTMaps is also used in totally different domains such as race sailing ships! Half of the vessels racing on the Vendée Globe 2017 was equipped with RTMaps!

When do you think we will see driverless vehicles regularly on the road?

Everything depends on what we call “driverless vehicles”. We are still at the beginning of the release of eyes-off automated vehicles (vehicles which can follow a lane, or reproduce well known path while avoiding obstacles). Most demonstrations take place on highways in the US, but vehicles which can safely drive in unpredictable scenarios, adapt their behaviour in unknown situations (weather, urban circulation) while achieving reasonable speeds are still a long way to go. There are still a lot of efforts to be done before we are be able to sleep quietly in autonomous cars.

What are your plans for 2017?

It will be another very exciting year for us with the planned release of a major version of RTMaps embedded and a new great product from our dSPACE partners dedicated to ADAS and Automated Driving. The company, the business and the team are growing and the technology is rapidly improving. We have recently changed our support service to be more efficient. We will continue to work hard to propose a better user experience to our customers, we care to listen them and enhance our solutions.

We have already planned many events as well. We will be at the Autonomous Vehicles Technology World Expo in Stuttgart in June, maybe at AutoSens Brussels in September and Tech.AD Detroit in November.
We also work on great projects around machine learning systems validation such as Cloud LSVA with IBM, INTEL, TASS, Tom Tom, Valeo, Ertico, CEA or Vicomtech and some European universities.

Why is Intempora supporting Self Driving Track Days?

Self Driving Track Days is a great opportunity for us to show our solutions during workshops and demonstrations.
We have 15+ year history in these application domains, our solutions were embedded in robotics and semi-autonomous vehicles since 2002.

Right now, it’s important for us to offer expertise and share views with numerous engineers and researchers from the domain. This series allows us to meet directly engineers, researchers or students.

Finally – what advice would you give people interested in having a career in vehicle perception and driverless technology?

Have fun and put your passion at the service of people. AI and software for autonomous vehicles are building the future of transportation. For sure, transportation and mobility will be the next revolution.

The competition is hard but necessary to offer the best for everyone. I can’t wait to see what the next decade will look like

See you at SDTD in France, England and Austria!

How would you tackle the Driverless / ADAS skills deficit?

There’s a repeating theme within the technology ecosystem that acts as the foundation to driverless cars and its widespread precursor, ADAS.

Irrespective of whether a company is a disruptive VC-backed force, an established Car manufacturer or one of their suppliers (OEMs, Tier 1 and 2s, in auto industry parlance) there is one single problem which not one can resolve.

That problem is the skills deficit.

This challenge is three-fold.

  1. There are amazing universities conducting exciting research, but this is comparatively slow moving, taking years to reach a conclusion and even longer for any resulting technology to be commercially available. TakeawayNew technologies and their creators take too long to enter the market.
  2. Universities, which have developed supporting courses to explore and exploit this organisational expertise, are slowly churning out brilliant graduates with very little applicable experience to prospective employers. TakeawayThe technology is too expensive for all graduates to get experience on during their undergraduate degree.
  3. And for everyone else, whether they are universities trying to break into the sector with new courses, or employers seeking to grow their capability or breadth of education within their workforce, the speed at which they are able to launch new courses or expand is far slower moving that the industry needs. TakeawayUniversities are not built to move as fast as a new technology once it nears and enters the market.

Let’s say that the number of universities offering relevant courses increases every year, and each churns out 30 capable graduates 3 years later, that doesn’t do anything to keep up with the speed of growth in the sector. Likewise, even if the number of courses doubled tomorrow, those students would have very little practical experience and thus, not be able to contribute to the available talent pool for several more years. The same can be said for experienced professionals, who are even more in demand and currently the most mobile of employees – experienced professionals I have spoken with regularly skip between continents to change employers.

This is working up to create a perfect storm, and could be the greatest stalling point to the development and widespread adoption of driverless vehicles. The falling line on the graph at the top shows a steadily increasing imbalance between industry needs and available employees..

Half of the startups I have seen in the sector are bourne from university research projects, whether they remain in-house to be incubated or belong to academics or students who decided to “go it alone” – it’s a fertile place for new ideas and technologies.

Even established military technology companies are having to shift how their business paradigm interacts with the world of new technology. I recently ran a networking meetup to bring more people into the fold for driverless technology, and an internationally recognizable military technology company brand were in the second row, looking for new ideas. No longer the domain of Billion dollar industry, new ideas and experts in new fields are highly sought after, and nobody knows where they will appear – even companies making spy satellites.

So who should counter this problem within the ‘Intelligent mobility’ sector, and how? We know that no one single car manufacturer or the various supply chain companies could, irrespective of their size – it’s not what they are set up to do. They rely on the education system to do that.

But what they can do is coalesce around projects and platforms that might, at the very least, add practical experience. It’s in their best interests, because in 5 years’ time, there will be a massive shortfall in employable talent, and they will be the ones that feel that the most.

We need more good training courses, delivered by a greater number of capable Universities. Udacity’s online training has proved popular and has huge capacity, but while many employers are on board in supporting its content, and recognition as a viable feature on a potential employee’s CV, like any training or qualification – and I cannot stress this enough to graduates or prospective employees in any sector – practical experience validates its worth.

There are now more than a dozen driverless technology competitions globally, from 1/24th scale up to full size platooning competitions, many of which in North America, with a handful too in Europe, and these are a great additional training ground to validate that training.

But how many large or international competitions are there, validated and designed around countering those shortfalls and skills deficits? At the moment, the largest has a few dozen participants, nothing like the scale or ambition of equivalent competitions in, say, student motorsport. Formula Student and Formula SAE boast some 500 university teams worldwide, but only 18 or so within that competition are working in the new Driverless formula, running in Germany this year.

We created Self Driving Track Days to help lower the barrier to building this experience, whether universities or companies see it as an opportunity for testing vehicles, or trying to find out whether a non-Automotive industry company might have something to offer from their expertise in video graphics, AI, big data, robotics, mapping, software engineering or some other area.

These events allow experts from around industry to engage with students or companies outside the traditional supply chain and bring them into the fold. Advice, experience, exposure to the technology, all of which working towards a longer term aim of getting more people interested, informed and involved.

We are far from finished. We know that Self Driving Track Days is, and will continue to be, a product in development. We are changing it, developing it, adding to it, but we felt we needed to do something to make a difference. We are not VC backed, we don’t have shareholders, but we are very proud to work with people across the industry that we admire, and likewise, receive their support for what we do, whether that is this project, AutoSens, or the other activities we’re planning over the next couple of years.

We’ll be working with established players, on different continents, having informal and formal partnerships to make exciting, worthwhile and valuable things happen that benefit the industry – and we are far from finished, in fact, the SDTD project is only four and a half months old. For us, it’s very early days, but I hope that you will be part of the journey.

We might not always get it right, but we will keep going until you think we have.

So now it’s your turn. What are you doing?

Date and Venue change for UK event

After a venue visit in December, we have decided to change the venue (and dates) of the upcoming event in the UK.  This decision reflects our need in the UK to have greater workshop capacity, as well as needs of our participants in terms of transport ease.

getlstd-property-photoThe new venue, Daytona Karting Circuit (pictured right), is located at Sandown Racecourse in Esher, Surrey.

This location is better served with public transport, and for those travelling from further afield is helpfully located half way between Gatwick and Heathrow Airports, and has better facilities for training and attendants, with catering onsite, which we expect to be our main attraction thanks to proximity to a large population base.  While the former venue we had selected had ample space, as a multi-use site, they could provide the reassurances on logistics we had requested for the dates we needed.

The new dates will be from 24-25 April.  A reminder for those of you wanting to attend – the workshop is a one day workshop, repeated twice.  If you attend on day one, you do not need to attend again!

We intend to run more comprehensive training workshops at other events and are working on CPD Accreditation for these.

Daytona, as a premier karting venue (it has hosted many professional drivers, including recently Fernando Alonso!), are also able to offer a BBQ and drinks for participants wishing to stay after the workshop, and we’ll also be offering karting on both evenings although this is subject to a minimum booking number in order to proceed.

If you have not already done so, please join the mailing list to be kept informed, and book now to guarantee your place.

Infographic – The surprisingly long history of Driverless Vehicles

The lovely Daniel Dixon at Get Off Road, a UK-based Land Rover parts specialist, got in touch recently and asked if we’d be interested in publishing an infographic he and his team have been working on.  “Of course“, we said, “send it over!“… which they did… and here it is!  You can also download a printable PDF (helpfully split into A4 pages) which weighs in at 15MB.

The infographic show some highlights of the surprisingly long and potted history of driverless cars, from Alphabet’s Waymo (also known as Google Driverless Cars) back in time to 1939’s GM experimental ‘Futurama’ exhibit, with a healthy dose of DARPA’s Grand Challenge thrown in as well.

If you think this is interesting, you can catch up with the latest news at our free monthly networking meetups (upcoming meetups are listed and bookable on the menu), which take place around the UK and occasionally elsewhere in Europe.  Join the meetup group for free or join our monthly newsletter mailing list (form on the right!) to get updates on our events (including meetups), blogs and other activities.

the-growth-of-autonomous-ca

 

Meetups and buildathons

We are not alone in wanting to shout about autonomous vehicles.  Alongside quickly growing meetup groups in the US, we have now run three in the UK, one in Belgium and a new group has just started another in Germany.

We’ve had interest from Austria, Australia, Sweden and Korea to replicate what we’re doing, but while you might ‘only’ see a few track events and meetups, there’s a lot more going on under the surface – we’re talking about driverless motorsport, university education, outreach, demonstrations, public lectures, residential training, recruitment events and much more – a cradle to grave approach to get people into the industry, trained and contributing as soon as possible, with a wealth of practical, hands on experience.

That will all take time to develop, and lots of the above will be announced and some even begin in 2017, so watch this space (and of course, join our meetup group and mailing list)

So I write this as a suggestion that you start a meetup, and get your hands dirty creating a driverless car as soon as possible.  The kits are out there, open source or extremely low cost, and you can start creating something right now – just start searching and playing with software, systems, track the influencers on linkedin, or twitter, read, play, learn and find out how you can make a difference.

600_456083398In California, CEO of 3DR Chris Anderson’s DIY Robocars meetup group is building, hacking and racing cars, closely tied in to the exciting innovation in that state (particularly in Silicon Valley) and supported by like-minded folk in the industry like PolySync’s Joshua Hartung and Self Racing Car’s Joshua Schachter.

img_6975In Berlin, Shreyas Gite, an engineer from Rolls Royce, has begun a meetup in Germany this month (pictured right, working hard with beers), hosted by our friends at Local Motors, with a view to weekly meetings to hack cars together for a first race meetup in April.

600_456522090Don’t let those job titles or fancy sounding employers fool you, these are people interested and excited by this subject, and you wouldn’t have read this far unless you were too… so do something about it!  There are also existing meetups in China and Singapore (pictured left, with bean bags)!

These events and activities are powerful because they are driven by the will to share knowledge. The world is moving in the right direction, but with so few running regularly, it should be pretty easy to double or triple that in 2017.

We have committed to monthly meetups and have three more track and training events remaining on our calendar before August 2017, the last of which, at Teesdorf near Vienna in Austria, will be our biggest – but there are other ways to get involved and contribute.

We are happy to support new meetups with event listings, have a steadily developing mailing list (500+ after only 4 months) – so if you’re in or near a city (ideally above 500,000 people), have an interest in driverless tech, search for a meetup – if one does not exist, create one! It might not be a walk in the park, or as easy as a driverless ride is now, but its easier to get knowledge to come to you than go out and hunt for it…

You never know, it might lead you into a much more stimulating 2017.

Although there’s still a lot of work to do for us, we’re gradually closing the office for the Christmas and New Year holidays. Thanks to everyone for their support in this very exciting first year, have a great holiday season, and here’s to a rip-roaring 2017!

Alex Lawrence-Berkeley – Co-Founder

Train strikes are good for the future of transport

Controversial perhaps, but shouldn’t employers and employees both take reasonable steps to plan around such eventualities? As someone who works from home most of the time now, I had to travel from Surrey to Docklands in London on both 13th and 14th (for MediSens, one of our sister events).

No hassle, no delays, just straightforward planning to satisfy my commitments to employer, clients and family.  I don’t care about union disputes, who is right or wrong, what the politics are right now or potential fall out might be in the future, because frankly, it will become largely irrelevant. I commuted for years (up to 2 hours each day, every day) but what’s clear to me is that it’s people that have no choice who are affected the most – those with particularly limiting mobility issues, from disability or old age for example.

In conversation with a public transport operator earlier this year, I was told that he’d convert his vehicles to be driverless as soon as a viable option became available, saving him his largest outlay – staff costs of £20m per year. But this was not practical even when the technology was ready, sometime within the next 5 years (yes, it’s that close) because of union resistance.

The Southern Rail strike is an early skirmish on what will become a long union-fought war that will decimate jobs across the transport system (both public transport, like trains and buses, and on-demand transport, like taxis and yes, Uber) as transport steadily evolves into the new shape of transport, referred to with a variety of pithy terms including Intelligent Transport and Mobility as a Service.

What these terms hint at is that transport systems will move away from their schedule (i.e. the hourly train or bus) and towards yours (near instant ride-hailing), reducing and potentially completely removing the need for personal ownership of vehicles, or reliance on humans in the system at all.

This really is nothing to do with safety on particular trains at particular stations, it’s a much bigger change – on a par with Thatcher shutting unprofitable coal mines.  It’s fitting that the Orgreave report is coming out so soon, because some of the background to what’s coming next is also a lesson from history.

Despite the protestations of organised groups lambasting the decimation of their business or employment model (whether train staff or tax drivers), my last four Uber drivers are happy with their lot, work flexibly and earn more than they would if minicab driving or being employed by a local firm, though they are not yet aware that eventually they too will be usurped by newer transport technologies.

As for the Southern train strike, many of the concerns held are legitimate, but also the fall out from the poorly managed hybrid finance and oversight system of taxpayer, regulator and shareholders of several companies not able to provide a key service to hundreds of thousands of people.  But is that their role?

In ten years’ time (and much sooner in many places), it won’t matter, devolved transport systems, on-demand mobility as a service will be everywhere, and not just with Uber, but with driverless cars, transport pods and a step change in how transport is used, managed and perceived.  In the mean-time, any event like this puts the focus on technology, and the difference between those that embrace it (two days of travel, no delays) and those that reject it.

With the news this week that Uber and Volvo are running driverless cars in San Francisco (instead of human-driven Uber cars) and Google’s Self Driving Car project has this week become its own entity (Waymo) and plans to launch real public services in the very near future in association with Fiat Chrysler, it’s absolutely not science fiction. In fact it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination any more, all you have to do is watch the news, go forth and hop in to a driverless vehicle.

Those affected most by disruption, people with the most challenging mobility issues which restrict their alternative means of transport, will also be the greatest beneficiaries of this transport revolution.  For the first time, many will be able to be truly independent, not relying on specially adapted cars, station staff or planning journeys with the minute attention to detail that includes step-free entry to obscure stations and ease of access facilities that fortunately mobile people such as myself take for granted.

I will happily correct anyone to suggest this is futurist navel-gazing, and point out that driverless cars, and certainly cars capable of being driverless, are already in use on the roads in most first-world countries.  Huge, data-driven organisations including Uber and Google are gathering knowledge on how transport is changing and how technology is enabling that, and we, as transport consumers, remain stubbornly oblivious to the driverless vehicles we get on regularly to ferry us around – whether they are pods at airports or trains in London’s Docklands.  In the UK, like many other enlightened countries, the government is investing, there’s an official policy unit, even the wizened inhabitants of the House of Lords are receiving training to better understand decisions and policies they will be asked to consider on matters of national importance, in a realm that most people on the street have no clue about.

With every major car manufacturer scrambling to look at driverless vehicles, and understand what their future role might be if private ownership of cars falls by the wayside, this radical change could confirm ours to be the last generation of near universal car driving.

Humans are flawed – their motivations of money from share dividends or employment in the regulator, policy-maker, government, train or platform will be irrelevant in the not-so-distant future.

So why are strikes good? They make people angry, they make people look for alternatives, they force people to question the established order of things and maybe, just maybe, they will help more people realise that there’s more to mobility than relying on humans to provide what machines can usually do just as well, and often much better.

Can you help? We need venues!

We are planning a series of networking meet-ups, public lectures and possibly demonstrations of driverless vehicles in June 2017 as part of UK Robotics Week 2017.

Locations will include a selection from the following list: Milton Keynes, Bristol, London, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Brighton, Sheffield, Southend or Leeds, we’re fairly open minded but it does need to have a population of at least 250,000 and a very active start-up community.

Venues are essential in each city, so we need to find:

  • A networking / meetup space for 40 people seated theatre style from 11.30am-2.30pm (1 per city per day)
  • A theatre for a public lecture with 100-150 seats (maybe 1 or 2)
  • Outdoor city-centre space for a driverless vehicle demo a week beforehand (we’d like to do this – still looking into logistics and how many cars we can get hold of… this is tricky)

And this part is really important – we’d like to partner with existing education / outreach organisations who have aligned activities we can help promote and support (particularly computer science, robotics, with strong schools and public engagement… or support to makers, start-ups in the digital sector, etc) as well as an existing event / marketing team we can talk to.

If you can help, please contact us!

European Robotics Week, Midlands IM Conference, new Meetups and more

Networking meet-ups – December 2016 and January 2017

We have got two networking meet-ups confirmed:

  • London12th December – 12-2pm. There’s still space so please book now. We had a venue in Docklands but it’s possible we’ll have to move to a venue just next door, but the date and time remain the same.
  • Brighton20th January – 12-2pm. Lots of space so please book now. This will be hosted by our friends at the Brighton Digital Catapult.

For regular updates, please sign up to our mailing list, join the group on Meetup.com

European Robotics Week

It’s been two weeks since our inaugural event in Leicestershire and although we have already started looking at the remaining 3 events in this series and starting to plan our return to the UK in November 2017, I felt it was worthwhile revisiting one of the partnerships we have, with European Robotics Week.  I describe it as a small partnership because our inclusion was fairly late in that event’s planning and we felt that we could have done more with it – indeed next year, we hope to do much more.

This themed event week included more than 800 events in 30 countries, so we were delighted to be one of the first events on their international event calendar and also one of only a small handful in the UK taking part.  The event is delivered by SPARC, the partnership for Robotics in Europe.

SPARC is the largest civilian-funded robotics innovation programme in the world, and is a partnership between the European Commission and a trade group called euRobotics founded in 2012 by 35 organisations. Now, euRobotics represents more than 250 companies, universities and research institutions, ranging from traditional industrial robotics manufacturers to producers of agricultural machinery and innovative hospitals.

Brexit

Much has been made of the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK but it’s worthwhile pointing out that nobody really knows what the effect of this will be, if or when the UK leaves the EU, and whether or not the country or its industries will be excluded from any particular international programmes.

The likelihood is that whatever the political change, the UK’s strength in robotics, space, engineering and industry, as well as other STEM-influenced sectors (Science, technology, engineering and maths) which the UK holds a seat at the ‘big table’ will ensure its place in activities such as this.  Our attitude is, and will remain, that we are part of an international community and unless we are forcibly stopped from working collaboratively across all markets, that’s exactly what we will continue to do.

Robotics and Automation

Why Robotics?  It’s straightforward really, let’s say there are 2000 distinct functions performed by a driver (I think that’s about right, I saw it at a presentation at some point this year but sorry, can’t find the source), 90% of them can be automated with very well established technologies from robotics and industrial automation sector experience – it’s just a question of applying that experience and technology into the automotive sector then making it reliable and cheap enough to go into a production vehicle.

The other 10% gets trickier and starts needing to take advantage of more ‘natural’ processing, which is where AI and huge volumes of data processing comes into play… but if we can access the expertise in other sectors to accelerate the advancement of autonomous vehicles, then why not?  The markets, supply chain and expertise are far larger and more mature, so has a lot to offer.

Midlands Intelligent Mobility Conference

This week we exhibited at the Midlands IM Conference, a free event hosted at Loughborough University’s Holywell Park Conference Centre, not far from where we held our November networking meetup or our inaugural test track and training event.

The conference was organised by two groups of universities (six institutions in all) funded to run specific outreach projects: IMPART and IMPETUS. Both of these are tasked with developing links from universities into government and industry on the topic of Intelligent Mobility, and they have done great work with their extremely modest budgets.

Intelligent Mobility is not just the topic of autonomous vehicles, but also communications, infrastructure, fleet vehicles, public transport, mobility as a service and a myriad of other policy buzz words all of which have a wide variety of industries feeding in to them that are not typically on the radar of the average driverless technology junkie.

I was there with Lina Alousta, our Business Development Manager, exhibiting and networking with a wide variety of organisations active in the UK, as well as several international companies developing their own understanding of what the UK market has to offer.

As one of the only organisations with international technology awareness (primarily from our sister brand, the AutoSens vehicle perception conference – which takes place in the US and Europe) there was a lot of interest in Self Driving Track Days, our networking meetups and other various other events, products and services we are rolling out over the next 18 months both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe… so while naturally we can’t say who we talked to, we were very pleased with the event and will look forward to next years’ incarnation.

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