Of pods and planes

Presentations on two of the Transport System Catapult’s most talked-about projects brought a close to the Imagine Festival’s first week.

Programme Managers Philip Ellis and Neil Fulton provided an update on their respective projects with Ellis explaining how the Departure Planning Information (DPI) programme is generating savings and reducing delays at airports across the UK. Fulton then presented the self-driving pods that will be trialled on the pavements of Milton Keynes next year, and set out some of the technological – and non-technological – challenges that are facing the project team.

To the strains of “Come Fly with Me” and a backdrop of glamorous Sixties holiday brochure shots, Ellis pointed out that aviation had come a long way since the days when flying was an exclusive means of transport for the wealthy. But lower prices and vastly increased passenger numbers have also brought problems, he noted, with delays and environmental concerns among the most pressing challenges created by the uptake in air travel.

This is particularly significant in the UK, Ellis told the Imagine Festival audience, because of the relatively large amount of flights that arrive and depart from the country in comparison to its relatively small land (and air) space. Ellis backed this up with collated figures showing that more than a quarter of a billion passengers used UK airports in 2013 (an increase of 3% compared to 2012) with the biggest increases seen at some of the country’s smaller regional airports.

“Like jumping on a bus”

“Aviation and our perception of it has changed, and a lot of people now treat getting on a plane in the same way they think of jumping on a bus,” Ellis said. “As a result, they expect real-time journey information similar to what they are used to receiving for land-based transport. But today’s Air Traffic Management System is not real-time and is in fact based on information put into the system around three hours before the planes depart.”

Thanks to DPI, however, that is finally starting to change, with the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) overseeing the installation of real-time departure information software at up to 22 UK airports. With DPI capability already in place at the country’s two biggest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, the technology is now being rolled out at seven more major locations (London City, Stansted, Luton, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen). A further ten to 15 regional airports will receive a bespoke fit-out to give them the same DPI capability and real time data distribution as the larger airports.

As well as providing passengers with more accurate flight information, DPI is expected to minimise delays and reduce the amount of time that planes spend in holding patterns waiting to land. This will result in less noise being generated and less fuel being required – with the total direct economic benefit of the scheme estimated to be around £12 million.

“Eurocontrol [the European air traffic management body] have been pushing for this for a long time, but there has been no specific legislation to accelerate its adoption,” Ellis said. “In Germany they currently have just five airports with this technology, and we had only two, but this project will mean that the UK has more than 20. As well as bringing immediate benefits to those UK airports, it will be a big kick start for the rest of Europe’s airport to follow.”

Ending his presentation with “Fly me to the Moon” in a light-hearted reference to the aviation industry’s possible longer-term goals, Ellis then made way for Neil Fulton and his update on the driverless pods project.

Race for autonomy

Once viewed in as fanciful a manner as moon flights, autonomous vehicles are now the subject of several major research and development projects around the world. Fulton started off by explaining the rationale behind the Milton Keynes-based programme.

“The project actually pre-dates the Transport Systems Catapult, and the original credit has to go to the Automotive Council and Cambridge University’s John Miles who started the work with Milton Keynes council to develop a project that could see up to 200 of these vehicles moving people around the city.

“But before making such a massive investment, the MK Council was understandably keen to look at the economic case for the pods, the viability of the technology and how the pods will interact with people – and vice versa.”

The TSC was therefore approached to oversee the LUTZ Pathfinder programme’s test phase, which will see three autonomous pods trialled on the pavements of Milton Keynes. During the test period, all of the vehicles will be manned by a trained operative who will be able to take immediate control of the pod if necessary.

The pods will be equipped with technology provided by Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group and Fulton showed a video of the technology in action during a “test drive” of the navigation system around a university quad. Relying on left-side and right-side cameras for its primary data, the technology works by mapping out the environment in which it will operate so that subsequent journeys can be compared against a known “norm”.

Clear challenges

Fulton then demonstrated the real world scenario that awaits the pods once they have been deemed ready for testing in public, with the help of a film shot from a bicycle riding along part of the route where the pods will operate. 

Challenges identified on just that short bike ride included the pod having to know how to safely avoid and overtake pedestrians, to correctly distinguish between genuine obstacles and irrelevant distractions such as empty carrier bags and other types of litter, to be able to navigate road crossings or car parks, and to deal with the potential confusion of heavy shadows on sunny days or the quick change of lighting conditions when driving through an underpass.

“There’s a distinct difference between our programme and some of the other autonomous vehicle projects, which are mainly road-based, and I would say that taking the vehicles off the road and onto pavements actually intensifies the challenge, because of the increased interaction you have with people and obstacles,” Fulton said.

“So on the one hand, you can see the technological challenges that we’re facing, but there are many other challenges to consider on top of that, such as the regulation and law changes that will be required to get autonomous vehicles onto the market. There is also the question of liability insurance in terms of who takes responsibility for these vehicles once they are out on the roads, or the pavements in the case of the pods.

Personality issues

“I also know that the Google cars face a situation where they have been found to be too polite at crossings, giving way to other cars to such an extent that they end up waiting too long at busy junctions. So there’s the matter of how you develop the persona of the pods – making them assertive enough to get through the pedestrian environment without being aggressive, which could conflict with the safety requirement or lead to a lack of public acceptance.

“So there is clearly a lot of work still to be done, but I think there are huge opportunities for research in areas such as developing those vehicle personalities.”

The high levels of interest in both DPI and the autonomous pods was evident in the lengthy Q&A session that followed the two presentations, with the audience asking not just for further details about the programmes individually, but also about possible overlaps between them and other Intelligent Mobility projects.

With airport accessibility one of the key criteria being evaluated by the UK Airports Commission, Ellis agreed with an audience member who suggested that autonomous vehicles could play a role in easing journeys to and from airports.

“Heathrow’s Terminal 5 already has its autonomous shuttles running along a tracked route inside the airport, but there is definitely potential to expand this outside of the main terminal buildings, and in fact we’re already in conversation with Luton airport and others about introducing more integrated transport and about the potential for autonomous vehicles on some of the routes where they are currently using conventional buses.

“With DPI as well, there are lots of potential overlaps with other existing projects and new business opportunities, because a lot of the technology involved, such as real-time and open data systems and modelling software are things that can easily be transferred from aviation to help improve other forms of transport.”

The second week of the Imagine Festival gets underway on Monday with a “Brains to Business” symposium, looking at what it takes to turn great ideas into commercial reality. For more details on the Imagine Festival programme, head to www.imaginefestival.co.uk .


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