Autonomous shuttle service in Oxfordshire

Autonomous shuttle service kicks off in Oxfordshire

Image credit: Darwin Innovation Group and others

An autonomous passenger shuttle has started trial runs on UK roads today. The bus-like vehicle will transport passengers around Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire during a one-year trial funded by the UK Space Agency and ESA.

The new service is being trialled by Darwin Innovation Group, using a shuttle created by Navya. The company previously provided shuttles for trials in an urban setting in Switzerland.

The autonomous shuttle service operates at Harwell Science Campus during weekdays, morning to evening. It travels two routes, one along Fermi Avenue and one along Eighth Avenue, with the ESA building being the central stop for both routes. There is no cost to ride the shuttle, which is currently available to campus pass-holders and registered guests of pass-holders.

The shuttle – which is battery powered – uses lidar to help navigate safely in its surroundings, in addition to cameras and ultrasound sensors. The shuttle also features a satellite antenna for positioning. While there is no steering wheel, the shuttle has safety controls managed by an on-board operator through the trial.

Darwin – which specialises in combining terrestrial and satellite communications – will track its location and gather information about its operations throughout the trial. Telematics data will be transmitted from the shuttle via O2’s 4G and 5G networks and Hispasat satellite communication channels, allowing for real-time monitoring. In previous trials, autonomous vehicles have relied on terrestrial Wi-Fi for connectivity; making use of mobile networks and communications satellites permits operations even in remote areas that may not yet have complete terrestrial coverage.

Daniela Petrovic, delivery director at Darwin, said: “We’re thrilled to play a part in demonstrating the real-world potential of autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars are no longer theoretical, and we believe that [connected autonomous vehicle] trials can help move the UK towards greener, more efficient and more accessible modes of transport.”

The companies and agencies involved in the trial hope the shuttle service will demonstrate the potential of self-driving vehicles to operate in the real world and serve as a step towards the wider use of this technology in the UK.

The science minister George Freeman commented: “Until now, autonomous vehicles have relied on terrestrial Wi-Fi, which means they can stryggle to operate in remote and rural areas. By unlocking the power of space and satellite technology, these shuttles can stay connected all the time.”

“Our National Space Strategy promises to put space technology at the heart of our efforts to make the UK a science and innovation superpower. Autonomous vehicle technology has huge applications in key industries, and the UK is committed to lead in adoption as well as technological innovation.”

The shuttle is insured by Aviva (which hopes to use the trial data to better understand the evolution of the mobility market), AWS is providing cloud storage for the data produced, and Harwell Science Campus and the STFC are hosts for the service.

Elodie Viau, director of telecommunications and integrated applications at ESA, commented: “5G is set to transform society. For this to happen, communications networks in space have to be integrated with terrestrial ones. ESA is excited to champion the Harwell shuttle service, a project that will both showcase the reliable, instant connectivity delivered by converged space and ground telecommunications networks and bring low-emissions, autonomous vehicles to the roads.”

Stuart Grant, CEO of the Harwell Science Campus, added: “At Harwell we’ve created a scale-up ecosystem that promotes collaboration, multidisciplinary innovation and the creation of smart technology. We’re delighted to be able to support campus-based Darwin with the launch and operation of this next-generation autonomous shuttle. The Harwell shuttle will transport over 6,000 employees around the campus, showcasing the future of travel and urban mobility.”

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