When the European Space Agency needed help to develop the Mars rover probe, it turned to a UK start-up for its vision sensors. That start-up was Oxbotica, a company formed in 2014 by Paul Newman and Ingmar Posner, two professors from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science Mobile Robotics Group. They founded the company on the belief that autonomous technology is inevitable and will play a major role in both public and private transport.
Auto Futures talked to Dr. Graeme Smith, the CEO of Oxbotica about the company’s technology and the path towards an autonomous future.
“Fundamentally, Oxbotica develops the software that makes vehicles autonomous. Our technology enables machines to robustly navigate, understand and act in their specific environments without relying on external infrastructure, such as GPS. Whether complete systems or individual components, the pioneering platform-agnostic technology we’re developing can be integrated across multiple domains, from airports to warehouses and mines,” says Smith.
Oxbotica’s platform can be divided up into two products. Selenium is the name of its on-vehicle software – in effect the robot mind – which allows a vehicle to sense its environment and operate autonomously and independently of any infrastructure. Its software collects data through mapping a vehicle’s surroundings, which it then uses to teach the vehicle it’s operating in, and other vehicles in the fleet, to build up a richer and more complete picture of the world.
Smith explain further: “Best in class AV software builds its systems using a hierarchical structure. For example, the lowest level of processing could be, ‘there is something in front of me’. This might then be followed by, ‘and it’s moving’, up to ‘it’s a vehicle’, and so on. The benefit of this is that it provides more resilience against imperfect or incomplete training–you never miss the presence of an object simply because you don’t know what kind of object it is. Oxbotica takes that further, enabling an autonomous vehicle to recall seeing completely new objects.”
Its second product is called Caesium which is its cloud-based fleet management system that can schedule and co-ordinate whole fleets of AVs.
Last year the company made a number of major announcements. One of them was a strategic alliance with the transportation group Addison Lee to develop and deploy self-driving services in London by 2021.
“As a part of this project, we’ll be working closely together to create detailed, digital maps of more than 250,000 miles of public roads both in and around the capital. These maps will record the position of every kerb, road sign, landmark and traffic light in preparation for the deployment of autonomous cars,” says Smith.
Speaking at the time of the announcement, Andy Boland, Addison Lee Group’s CEO said: “Urban transport will change beyond recognition in the next 10 years with the introduction of self-driving services, and we intend to be at the very forefront of this change by acting now.”
Boland added: “Autonomous technology holds the key to many of the challenges we face in transport. By providing ride-sharing services, we can help address congestion, free space used for parking and improve urban air quality through zero-emission vehicles.”
If successful, the project will be rolled out in other cities across the UK.
As you can imagine, Smith is evangelical about the impact AVs will have on society as well as on mobility. He believes that they will help drastically reduce the number of accidents on the roads whilst making better use of the available road space. He told us: “Autonomous vehicles have the potential to hugely improve mobility for groups such as the elderly and the disabled, which provides more independence and security for these groups, as well as others who are often excluded by their inability to drive conventional vehicles.”
“Additionally, our software can be used to automate manufacturing facilities and transport connection links such as shuttles between airport terminals, which will reduce risk through heightened response times in the case of emergencies.”
There are a number of challenges ahead for his company and for autonomous driving in general. But Smith believes that being based in the UK instead of Silicon Valley has its advantages.
“Despite the challenge of complex road structures, we’re developing software that allows cars to adapt to the existing road infrastructure. This is the most realistic future for AVs. The roads are unlikely to adapt to the cars, and different countries have different road infrastructure – so it is vital that the software is able to adapt to any environment.”
“In the UK, we have all the seasons that are perfect for testing in different conditions, as well as a real mixture of off-road and complex, off-road terrain to make this testing more advanced. All of these challenges present a huge strategic advantage for bringing autonomous vehicles closer to reality.”
When asked about the driverless future, Smith offered up this vision.“In ten years, with the right regulations in place, we’re likely to see autonomous road vehicles transporting passengers around dense and complex urban routes, both in public and private transport, and eventually on longer journeys across the UK and further afield. It’s a very exciting prospect.”
It’s been a wild ride so far for Smith and Oxbotica. He told us that we can expect more details of its plans for mapping and testing AVs across the UK very soon. So keep watching this space…