All posts by Callum Tyndall

Driverless shuttle begins 2km route trial in London

A prototype autonomous shuttle will begin driverless navigation of a 2km route around the Greenwich Peninsula in London, UK, today. Using advanced sensors and state-of-the-art autonomy software to detect and avoid obstacles, the shuttle will be carrying members of the public as part of a research study contributing to the GATEway Project (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment).

The GATEway Project, led by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) and funded by government industry, is aiming to demonstrate the viability of automated vehicles for “last mile” mobility. Rather than more traditional automation, which tends towards robotising existing transport, the project looks instead to enable new forms of mobility in urban environments using automation.

“Last mile” mobility, as related to the project’s automation specifically, is focused on connecting existing transport hubs with residential and commercial areas using a zero-emission, low-noise transport system. It is hoped that the shuttle trial will enable the researchers to judge public acceptance of, and attitudes towards, driverless vehicles.

“This research is another milestone in the UK’s journey towards driverless vehicles and a vital step towards delivering safer, cleaner and more effective transport in our cities,” summarised Professor Nick Reed, academy director at TRL commented.

“It is critical that the public are fully involved as these technologies become a reality. The GATEway Project is enabling us to discover how potential users of automated vehicles respond to them so that the anticipated benefits to mobility can be maximised. We see automated vehicles as a practical solution to delivering safe, clean, accessible and affordable last-mile mobility.”

Focusing on the aspect of public perception, participants will be involved before and after the shuttle ride. Residents and visitors to the Peninsula will also be invited to leave feedback via an interactive map. Beyond a test of the technology itself, significant in enabling the UK as a leader in automated technology, the research aims to provide sociological insight into one of the biggest changes in mobility in recent history.

Images courtesy of GATEway

The shuttle itself uses a state-of-the-art autonomy software system called Selenium, which enables real time, robust navigation, planning, and perception in dynamic environments. Selenium is described as “a vehicle-agnostic, sensor-agnostic autonomy solution”, meaning that it is designed for use across a wide range of vehicles, making use of onboard sensors to locate itself in its map, perceive and track dynamic obstacles around it, and plan a safe obstacle-free trajectory to the goal.

Operating without any reliance on GPS, the shuttle uses high data-rate 3D laser range finders for obstacle detection and tracking, and an additional safety curtain is used in order to maximise safety. A safety steward will be on-board at all times in compliance with automated vehicle testing practices.

The shuttle trial is one of a number of GATEway Project studies currently taking part to assess public reaction to automated vehicles in the UK.

Researchers develop “spray-on” digital memory

The creation of a new “spray-on” digital memory device, produced using just an aerosol jet printer and nanoparticle inks, could take us a significant step forwards toward a future of low-cost, flexible electronics.  Acting like a USB flash drive, the new device is part of the rising wave of printable electronics.

The “spray-on” device, with a capability similar to that of a 4-bit flash drive, is the first fully-printed digital memory that would be suitable for practical use in simple electronics such as environmental sensors or RFID tags. Moreover, due to being jet-printed at comparatively low temperatures, it is possible to use in the building of programmable electronic devices on bendable materials like paper, plastic or fabric.

“We have all of the parameters that would allow this to be used for a practical application, and we’ve even done our own little demonstration using LEDs,” said Duke graduate student Matthew Catenacci, who describes the device in a paper published in the Journal of Electronic Materials.

The spray on memory, left, and an LED demonstration of the device conducted by the researchers

Roughly the size of a postage stamp, the device’s core is a new copper nanowire-based printable material that is capable of storing digital information. Made of silica-coated copper nanowires encased in a polymer matrix, the material encodes information in states of resistance, as opposed to the more usual states of charge.

With a small voltage applied to the material, it is possible to switch it from a state of high resistance, stopping any electric current, and one of low resistance, allowing current to flow. Moreover, unlike the silicon that largely dominates modern electronics, the nanowires and polymer can be dissolved in methanol, creating a liquid that can be sprayed through the nozzle of a printer.

“Memory is kind of an abstract thing, but essentially it is a series of ones and zeros which you can use to encode information,” said Benjamin Wiley, an associate professor of chemistry at Duke and an author on the paper.

“Most flash drives encode information in series of silicon transistors, which can exist in a charged state, corresponding to a ‘one’, and an uncharged state, corresponding to a ‘zero’.”

The results of the LED demonstration of the device. Images courtesy of Duke University

While not the first of its kind in regards to printable memory devices, the key importance of the new device is its practicality. The write speed is around three microseconds, rivalling the speed of flash drives. Additionally, tests found that written information may be retained for up to ten years, and the material can be re-written many times without degrading.

Although the memory currently available on the device is too small for storing anything like music files, the low cost and flexibility hold a lot of potential for applications such as RFID tags. Currently limited to just encoding a particular produce number, smarter RFID tags using the device could sense their environments and record the state over time.

In and of itself the device is not currently set to radically change electronics. It could however, be the gateway to a new generation of printed devices.