The Future is Here: Autonomos Mineroller Vehicles

terramax-inlineImprovised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines and other kinds of roadside bombs are a major threat to Coalition troops serving overseas. And even though combat operations in Afghanistan are coming to a close in the near future, military planners and developers are still looking for ways to address the kinds of threats that are all too common in these fields of engagement.

One such developer is U.S. defense contractor Oshkosh Defense, which recently unveiled its new M-ATV, an armored vehicle specially designed to resist blasts from IEDs and mines. This specialized, high-tech troop transport detects explosives using special ground penetrating radar and a 12-wheeled mineroller which attaches to the front. But now, the company is going a step further.

M-ATV_Light_P7A1130_rgb_720x300Oshkosh now claims it wants to move soldiers even further from the danger zone by putting them in another vehicle entirely and making the minesweeping truck drive itself. For the past decade, the company has been developing an autonomous driving technology called TerraMax. This self-driving system can be applied to vehicles already on the road, and was unveiled during the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge.

It’s now equipped with radar and LIDAR, which uses lasers to detect nearby objects, along with a drive-by-wire system that electronically controls engine speed, transmission, braking, and steering. The system does more than steer and hit the throttle and brakes. It can intelligently control a central tire inflation system and driveline locks to navigate deep sand or mud, all without any input from the operator.

terramax-inline2Similar to the technology that powers Google’s self-driving cars, TerraMax is adapted for use in much tougher conditions. But whereas Google and big auto manufacturers can carefully map roads, lane markings, and speed limit signs before its vehicles are even on the road, Oshkosh doesn’t have those advantages. It’s vehicles must navigate hostile terrain in territories that have not been thoroughly mapped and imaged.

So it made TerraMax capable of combining overhead imagery from satellites and planes with standard military maps generated through geographic information systems. That lets soldiers define roads and other obstacles, much like with a commercial GPS system. Once given a defined course, the vehicles can navigate themselves while operators set things like vehicle speed and following distance.

M-ATV_withTerraMax_J4A1330_720x300-CO1Granted, these aren’t entirely autonomous vehicles. Whenever a convoy reaches an impasse  of some kind, the M-ATV will need to alert an operator and ask what to do. However, it is still an impressive system that achieves two key objectives. One, it allows the military to move more cargo with fewer personnel; and two, it makes a convoy look like it’s carrying more personnel than it really is, which is likely to deter attacks.

Oshkosh’s unmanned vehicle technology is still in testing, but the company has spent the last three years working with the Marine Corp Warfighting Lab and the Office of Naval Research to get it ready for the battlefield. And while the technology is currently being developed for combat vehicles, it could also be used in civilian settings – like autonomous snow clearing at airports or police bomb disposal units.

mfc-amas-photo-02-hThough Coaltion forces are drawing down their presence in Afghanistan, Oshkosh’s and other unmanned ground vehicle concepts will likely be used in conflicts around the world in the years to come. Company representatives gave demonstrations of the technology at Eurosatory 2014, a defense industry trade show, and say they received positive feedback from other nations as well.

And it is only one of several military-grade autonomous technology project currently in development. Lockheed Martin is also working on the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), which also allows for autonomous or semi-autonomous driving. With the development of unmanned systems showing no signs of slowing down, autonomous-vehicle technology is likely to advance considerably in the coming years.

And be sure to check out this video of Oshkosh showcasing the M-ATV and TerraMax system at Eurosatory 2014:


Sources: wired.com, oshkoshdefense.com, humanisticrobotics.com

The Future is Here: Google’s New Self-Driving Car

google-new-self-driving-car-prototype-640x352Google has just unveiled its very first, built-from-scratch-in-Detroit, self-driving electric robot car. The culmination of years worth of research and development, the Google vehicle is undoubtedly cuter in appearance than other EV cars – like the Tesla Model S or Toyota Prius. In fact, it looks more like a Little Tikes plastic car, right down to smiley face on the front end. This is no doubt the result of clever marketing and an attempt to reduce apprehension towards the safety or long-term effects of autonomous vehicles.

The battery-powered electric vehicle has as a stop-go button, but no steering wheel or pedals. It also comes with some serious expensive hardware – radar, lidar, and 360-degree cameras – that are mounted in a tripod on the roof. This is to ensure good sightlines around the vehicle, and at the moment, Google hasn’t found a way to integrate them seamlessly into the car’s chassis. This is the long term plan, but at the moment, the robotic tripod remains.

google-self-driving-car-prototype-concept-artAs the concept art above shows, the eventual goal appears to be to to build the computer vision and ranging hardware into a slightly less obtrusive rooftop beacon. In terms of production, Google’s short-term plan is to build around 200 of these cars over the next year, with road testing probably restricted to California for the next year or two. These first prototypes are mostly made of plastic with battery/electric propulsion limited to a max speed of 25 mph (40 kph).

Instead of an engine or “frunk,” there’s a foam bulkhead at the front of the car to protect the passengers. There’s just a couple of seats in the interior, and some great big windows so passengers can enjoy the view while they ride in automated comfort. In a blog post on their website, Google expressed that their stated goal is in “improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.” Driverless cars could definitely revolutionize travel for people who can’t currently drive.

google_robotcar_mapImproving road safety is a little more ambiguous, though. It’s generally agreed that if all cars on the road were autonomous, there could be some massive gains in safety and efficiency, both in terms of fuel usage and being able to squeeze more cars onto the roads. In the lead-up to that scenario, though, there are all sorts of questions about how to effectively integrate a range of manual, semi- and fully self-driving vehicles on the same roadways.

Plus, there are the inevitable questions of practicality and exigent circumstances. For starters, having no other controls in the car but a stop-go button may sound simplified and creative, but it creates problems. What’s a driver to do when they need to move the car just a few feet? What happens when a tight parking situation is taking place and the car has to be slowly moved to negotiate it? Will Google’s software allow for temporary double parking, or off-road driving for a concert or party? google_robotca

Can you choose which parking spot the car will use, to leave the better/closer parking spots for someone with special needs (i.e. the elderly or physically disabled)? How will these cars handle the issue of “right of way” when it comes to pedestrians and other drivers? Plus, is it even sensible to promote a system that will eventually make it easier to put more cars onto the road? Mass transit is considered the best option for a cleaner, less cluttered future. Could this be a reason not to develop such ideas as the Hyperloop and other high-speed maglev trains?

All good questions, and ones which will no doubt have to be addressed as time goes on and production becomes more meaningful. In the meantime, there are no shortage of people who are interested in the concept and hoping to see where it will go. Also, there’s plenty of people willing to take a test drive in the new robotic car. You can check out the results of these in the video below. In the meantime, try not to be too creeped out if you see a car with a robotic tripod on top and a very disengaged passenger in the front seat!


Sources:
extremetech.com, scientificamerican.com

The Future is Here: Google Robot Cars Hit Milestone

google_robotcaIt’s no secret that amongst its many cooky and futuristic projects, self-driving cars are something Google hopes to make real within the next few years. Late last month, Google’s fleet of autonomous automobiles reached an important milestone. After many years of testing out on the roads of California and Nevada, they logged well 0ver one-million kilometers (700,000 miles) of accident-free driving. To celebrate, Google has released a new video that demonstrates some impressive software improvements that have been made over the last two years.

Most notably, the video demonstrates how its self-driving cars can now track hundreds of objects simultaneously – including pedestrians, an indicating cyclist, a stop sign held by a crossing guard, or traffic cones. This is certainly exciting news for Google and enthusiasts of automated technology, as it demonstrates that the ability of the vehicles to obey the rules of the road and react to situations that are likely to emerge and require decisions to be made.

google_robotcar_mapIn the video, we see the Google’s car reacting to railroad crossings, large stationary objects, roadwork signs and cones, and cyclists. In the case of the cyclist — not only are the cars able to discern whether the cyclist wants to move left or right, it even watches out for cyclists coming from behind when making a right turn. And while the demo certainly makes the whole process seem easy and fluid, there is actually a considerable amount of work going on behind the scenes.

For starters, there are around $150,000 of equipment in each car performing real-time LIDAR and 360-degree computer vision – a complex and computing-intensive task. The software powering the whole process is also the result of years of development. Basically, every single driving situation that can possibly occur has to be anticipated and then painstakingly programmed into the software. This is an important qualifier when it comes to these “autonomous vehicles”. They are not capable of independent judgement, only following pre-programmed instructions.

BMW 7 Series F01 July 2009 Miramas FranceWhile a lot has been said about the expensive LIDAR hardware, the most impressive aspect of the innovations is the computer vision. While LIDAR provides a very good idea of the lay of the land and the position of large objects (like parked cars), it doesn’t help with spotting speed limits or “construction ahead” signs, and whether what’s ahead is a cyclist or a railroad crossing barrier. And Google has certainly demonstrated plenty of adeptness in the past, what with their latest versions of Street View and their Google Glass project.

Naturally, Google says that it has lots of issues to overcome before its cars are ready to move out from their home town of Mountain View, California and begin driving people around. For instance, the road maps needed to be finely tuned and expanded, and Google is likely to be selling map packages in the future in the same way that apps are sold for smartphones. In the mean time, the adoption of technologies like adaptive cruise control (ACC) and lane keep assist (LKA) will bring lots of almost-self-driving cars to the road over the next few years.

In the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the driverless car in action:


Source:
extremetech.com

Judgement Day Update: The Robotic Security Gaurd

knightscope-1It’s quite the interesting premise isn’t it? And one that might make an interesting movie! It’s known as the Knightscope, an “autonomous data machine” currently in development by Silicon Valley startup Knightscope Inc. Ultimately, the purpose of this new breed of robot will be to conduct the important and often monotonous task of keeping watch over property more cost effectively and comprehensively than a human security guard.

Earlier this month, Knightscope revealed that they had secured beta customers for the first two models – the K5 and K10. The robots, which share a passing resemblance to R2-D2, collect real-time data via a network of sensors. These would range from 360-degree HD video camera, microphones, thermal imaging sensors, infrared sensors, radar, lidar, ultrasonic speed and distance sensors, air quality sensors, and optical character recognition technology for scanning things like license plates.

knightscopeDepending on the sensor loadout, the units can be used to monitor differences in temperature, calculate the traveling speed and distance of surrounding objects/people, observe night time activity using infrared technology, and provide precision 3D mapping of an area. There are also plans to include facial recognition technology to help recognize an offender or wanted persons once the technology has been perfected.

This data would then be fed into a centralized data center that law enforcement agencies would be able to access data in real time, giving them a unique vantage point to assess the situation before arrival. As well as providing real time alerts, Knightscope says companies will be able to analyze historical data collected over time to help predict crime and allow companies to make better business decisions.

knightscope-2According to William Santana Li, Chairman and CEO of Knightscope, the inspiration behind these security robots came from the terrible tragedy that occurred over a year ago in a Connecticut school:

We founded Knightscope in response to the President and Sandy Hook’s calls to action and with the ultimate goal of providing an avenue for all Americans to join the fight against crime.

The company also says that the K10 model is intended for vast open areas and on private roads, while the K5 robot is better suited to more space-constrained environments. In essence, the K10 would be well suited to things like detailed traffic analysis while the K5 would be capable of handling indoor tasks, everything ranging from security to factory inspections.

knightscope-3Personally, I think a fleet of robotic surveillance and security robots is an cost-effective and sensible alternative to bulletproofing classrooms or arming teachers. So far, no options have been made for arming the robots, but that’s probably for the be best. No sense in arming the machines before they are intelligent enough to turn them on their masters with hostile intent!

The K5 Beta prototype was featured at the Plug and Play Winter Expo in Sunnyvale, California and beta testing is due to commence at the end of this year. And be sure to enjoy the following video, courtesy of the Knightscope company


Source:
gizmag.com