THE BLOG

Autonomous Vehicles Accelerate into the Fast Lane

09/01/2012 11:41 GMT | Updated 10/03/2012 10:12 GMT

We have all seen concepts that start life as the work of science fiction rapidly become science fact within our lifetimes. Amongst the most emotive and enduring of these concepts is the creation of robotic or autonomous systems that cater for our every need without so much as having to pickup a remote control. We are now witnessing the development of technologies that will enable our vehicles to go a significant way to meeting some of those needs. Britain is amongst the World leaders in the research and development of vehicles that can drive themselves and make intelligent decisions about the road ahead. I am immensely proud that the BAE Systems Wildcat is one of the most advanced and capable 'driven' to date, and now through our partnership with Oxford University we are starting to realise its potential in the commercial world.

From James Bond to Knight Rider, robotic and autonomous cars have been embraced and immortalised on film for many years. However, we are now close to realising that which Hollywood has promised for so long in our everyday lives. In addition to the research programmes of major automotive manufacturers, we are already seeing organisations like Google deploying vehicles with a level of autonomous operation. With recent legislation passed in one US state enabling autonomous vehicles to legally share the road with existing traffic, the opening of the gateway to their widespread use is looking evermore likely.

Driving is central to both our personal lives and national interests, yet all too often we lack the ability to get from A to B in a safe and efficient manner. A GPS system simply maps out the route ahead, but finding the fastest and most efficient route depends on countless constantly changing factors that could only be calculated by an advanced computer sharing information with other vehicles on the road. Autonomous vehicles could also tackle the incidents and accidents on our roads caused by human error. This doesn't just benefit the passengers, but has a trickle down effect to other road users who can rest assured that the autonomous vehicle in front or behind is not going to make any unexpected moves.

Our journey in developing autonomous capability has progressed rapidly from laboratory based experimentation through to the conversion of existing vehicles operating within real world environments. Wildcat started life as a 4x4 off-road production car from Bowler, but was modified by BAE Systems to sense the world around it, plan its own route, navigate and avoid obstacles. This requires the integration and systems engineering of advanced technology including computer controlled steering servos, a secondary braking system, a hotline into the vehicle's engine management system, wireless data links, GPS and laser ranging sensors all coupled to the vehicles brain where advanced algorithms make intelligent decisions about how to act in the light of the information provided. As a result it cannot just be controlled remotely, but also follow a pre-set path or make fully autonomous decisions about the road ahead and how to navigate obstacles it encounters so that it can complete its journey without any further human involvement.

There are now two Wildcats on the prowl, acting as test beds for autonomous technology. One remains with our scientists at the Advanced Technology Centre, while the other was officially handed over to Oxford University last December as part of a long term strategic partnership. In the true spirit of the Open Innovation, BAE Systems is able to expand its understanding and capabilities in the field of autonomy, while the engineering leaders of tomorrow are able to get their hands on a multi-million pound vehicle and apply their research in a very practical way, which will have a real impact in shaping the future of technology.

It's been just under a year since this Wildcat was officially handed over and already the research team at Oxford University have made exciting advances in tuning the capabilities of the vehicle to operate and integrate with the public road network. As a result of this pioneering work at both the Advanced Technology Centre and Oxford University, the commercial viability of autonomous vehicles is already taking shape.

BAE Systems now have a new product and service package born out of the research on Wildcat that makes joining the autonomous journey a much more exciting proposition for those not fortunate to have their own Wildcat. Our Land Autonomy Reference Kit (LARK) is essentially 'autonomy in a box' so that virtually any land vehicle can be converted to be driven remotely, follow a pre-set route or even plan and undertake its own journey. We've already received interest in LARK from customers across military and commercial markets seeking to explore and exploit the potential that autonomous vehicles provide.

For Britain to remain world leading in the field of engineering, we need to continue to get prospective students excited by the prospect of what they can create and encourage them to think without limits. Wildcat has not just demonstrated the future of autonomy. It has also demonstrated the need to stimulate universities with challenging research and development partnerships to drive the innovation process.