Tag Archives: Autonomous

Fields in North America will see their first robot tractors by the end of the year

American farm equipment manufactured John Deere has teamed up with French agricultural robot start-up Naio to create a driverless tractor that can plow, by itself, and be supervised by farmers through a smartphone.

Image credits CES 2022.

There are more people alive in the world today than ever before, and not very many of us want to work the land. A shortage of laborers is not the only issue plaguing today’s farms however: climate change, and the need to limit our environmental impact, are further impacting our ability to produce enough food to go around.

In a bid to address at least one of these problems, John Deere and Naio have developed a self-driving tractor that can get fields heady for crops on its own. This is a combination of John Deere’s R8 tractor, a plow, GPS suite, and 360-degree cameras, which a farmer can control remotely, from a smartphone.

Plowing ahead

The machine was shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an event that began last Wednesday. According to a presentation held at the event, the tractor only needs to be driven into the field, after which the operator can sent it on its way with a simple swipe of their smartphone.

The tractor is equipped with an impressive sensory suite — six pairs of cameras, able to fully perceive the machine’s surroundings — and is run by artificial intelligence. These work together to check the tractor’s position at all times with a high level of accuracy (within an inch, according to the presentation) and keep an eye out for any obstacles. If an obstacle is met, the tractor stops and sends a warning signal to its user.

John Deere Chief Technology Officer Jahmy Hindman told AFP that the autonomous plowing tractor will be available in North America this year, although no price has yet been specified.

While the tractor, so far, can only plow by itself, the duo of companies plan to expand into more complicated processes — such as versions that can seed or fertilize fields — in the future. However, they add that combine harvesters are more difficult to automate, and there is no word yet on a release date for such vehicles.

However, with other farm equipment manufacturers (such as New Holland and Kubota) working on similar projects, they can’t be far off.

“The customers are probably more ready for autonomy in agriculture than just about anywhere else because they’ve been exposed to really sophisticated and high levels of automation for a very long time,” Hindman said.

Given their price and relative novelty, automated farming vehicles will most likely first be used for specialized, expensive, and labor-intensive crops. It may be a while before we see them working vast cereal crop fields, but they will definitely get there, eventually.

There is hope that, by automating the most labor-intensive and unpleasant jobs on the farm, such as weeding and crop monitoring, automation can help boost yields without increasing costs, while also reducing the need for mass use of pesticides or fungicides — which would reduce the environmental impact of the agricultural sector, while also making for healthier food on our tables.

Credit: Pixabay.

Fleets of driverless cars could smoothen traffic by at least 35%

Driverless cars that are networked and in constant communication on the road could improve the flow of traffic by at least 35%.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The findings were reported by researchers at the University of Cambridge who programmed miniature robotic cars to drive on a multi-lane track where various traffic obstructions occurred. Each tiny robotic car was fitted with motion capture sensors and a Raspberry Pi which enabled them to communicate via WiFi.

Researchers adapted a lane-changing algorithm originally designed for autonomous cars to work with a fleet of cars. A driverless car typically changes lanes based on whether it is safe to do so and whether the procedure helps the vehicle move through traffic faster. The adapted algorithm adds a new layer of complexity and efficiency, allowing the cars to be more neatly packed when changing lanes. A fleet of cars also makes for safer roads due to constraints that prevent crashes at various speeds. The Cambridge researchers also included a second algorithm that detects cars moving in front of a vehicle and sends instructions that make space on the lane.

The authors tested to see how the fleet reacted in ‘egocentric’ and ‘cooperative’ driving modes when faced with an unmoving car. They also tested how the fleet reacted when a single car was controlled by an unpredictable human via a joystick. Both “normal” and “aggressive” driving behaviors were tested on the lanes.

In the “egocentric” mode, any cars behind a stopped car would also stop or slow down, waiting for a gap in traffic. Sounds familiar? That’s what happens on nearly every road on the planet. And naturally, in this situation, a queue quickly formed behind the stopped cars, halting overall traffic.

However, in cooperative mode — when the cars communicate with one another and respond accordingly to minimize traffic time for all parties involved — as soon as a vehicle stopped on the inner lane, those in the outer lane in the immediate proximity of the stopped car slowed down. This gave cars in the inner lane enough space to maneuver around the stopped car without having to stop or slow down significantly.

When a human driver controlled one of the robotic cars aggressively, the autonomous cars responded by giving way to the aggressive driver, improving safety.

In the normal mode, cooperative driving improved traffic flow by 35% over egocentric driving, while for aggressive driving, the improvement was 45%.

“Autonomous cars could fix a lot of different problems associated with driving in cities, but there needs to be a way for them to work together,” said co-author Michael He, an undergraduate student who designed the algorithms for the experiment.

“If different automotive manufacturers are all developing their own autonomous cars with their own software, those cars all need to communicate with each other effectively,” said co-author Nicholas Hyldmar, an undergraduate student who designed much of the hardware for the experiment.

Studies that assess the operation of numerous autonomous vehicles are typically simulated digitally or use just a few scale models — both inadequate approaches for a fleet of self-driving cars. The new study, on the other hand, uses an inexpensive and relatively realistic approach, offering one of the first evidence of traffic improvements in road-like conditions for self-driving fleets.

The findings were presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Montréal. In the future, similar studies will help researchers develop technology that allows cars to communicate with each other to improve traffic and safety.

“Our design allows for a wide range of practical, low-cost experiments to be carried out on autonomous cars,” said Dr. Amanda Prorok from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. “For autonomous cars to be safely used on real roads, we need to know how they will interact with each other to improve safety and traffic flow.”

Next, the researchers plan to use the fleet to test multi-car systems in more complex scenarios including roads with more lanes, intersections and a wider range of vehicle types.

Don't drink and drive.

Australian Committee thinks it should be OK for drunk people to use autonomous cars

Soon, you could be able to drink till you drop and still drive in Australia — as long as your car does the driving.

Don't drink and drive.

Image credits Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bryan Reckard / U.S. Navy.

It seems certain that autonomous vehicles are making their way into our lives. With that in mind, we have to tailor existing legislation to their use so that we may get the full benefits out of them. At least, that’s what The Australian National Transport Commission (NTC) plans to do. And they’re starting with DUI laws.

In a report published earlier this month, the NTC proposes changing current legislature on DUI. They argue that requiring for occupants of self-driving cars to be sober only negates part of the benefits of such technology.

“One potential barrier to receiving the full benefits of automated vehicles would be to require occupants of automated vehicles, who are not driving, to comply with drink-driving laws,” the report reads.

“This would create a barrier to using a vehicle to safely drive home after drinking.”

Their solution is to amend current rules and regulations with an exemption for autonomously driving vehicles. In essence, this would mean that no matter how monumentally shattered you are, as long as your car is driving itself, it’s not DUI. The Commission, however, admits this exemption should be used only in cases where the driver’s vehicle is fully automated.

“A risk of providing exemptions is that an occupant may subsequently choose to take over driving the vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” the report read.

“If this occurred, they would become the driver of the vehicle and drink and drug driving offences would apply.”

While self-driving cars are poised to hit the roads, they won’t simply take over — at first, they will share the tarmac with human-operated cars. As such, there will be situations when a driver has to take control of the autonomous vehicle to avoid risk or navigate dangerous situations. In such a case, the full extent of DUI laws would still apply, the report notes. Even after full automation, when cars would be perfectly capable of running any trip entirely unsupervised, if a driver were to take manual control of the vehicle, DUI laws would still apply.

So the NTC also recommends that the exemptions be made as clear-cut as possible, so people may get maximum use out of their vehicles without getting into trouble.

“The occupants will always be passengers,” their report concludes. “The situation is analogous to a person instructing a taxi driver where to go. Any exemptions should not apply to the fallback-ready user of a vehicle with conditional automation. A fallback-ready user is required to be receptive to requests to intervene or system failures and must take over the dynamic driving task if the ADS cannot perform it.”

Yara Birkeland.

Norway plans to launch the world’s first autonomous, fully electric ship next year

The world’s first fully autonomous, fully electric commercial cargo ship will be hitting Norway’s coastal waters as early as next year.

Yara Birkeland.

A rendering of the ship’s design.
Image credits YARA.

Once you start working on autonomous cars, there’s only a step (more likely a swim) to go to autonomous ships. In broad lines the tech is similar, the role is similar, it’s just that the surface they travel on is only a tad similar.

So it may not come as a huge surprise that people are working on designing ships that can navigate themselves — but just how close we are to a fully working such vessel likely will. Norway is expecting its first fully autonomous, fully electric commercial cargo ship to hit the waters next year.

Boaty McRobotface

Building and development costs on the to-be-christened Yara Birkeland is estimated to cost some US$25 million overall. The work will be carried out under a joint program by Yara International ASA, a Norwegian agriculture firm, and the Kongsberg Gruppen, who specialize in high-end technology.

It’s not only a test bed for maritime innovation — Yara Birkeland will be ferrying agricultural fertilizers across 37 nautical miles (68.5 km/42.5 miles) of coast to the port of Larvik from a local fertilizer plant. A suite of GPS, AIS, infrared cameras, radar, and lidar will be aiding the ship it on this quest, and ensure it stays on course within 12 nautical miles of the coast without colliding with anything.

Seems like a lot of cash to shell out for a fertilizer cargo boat, right? Well, the company expects to save a lot of money with the Yara Birkeland. Without a human crew on board to feed and pay for, and with fuel costs out of the picture, the ship is estimated to eventually slash operating costs by up to 90%.

And if there’s no crew, you don’t need crew quarters, right? Or kitchens. Toilets won’t see much use either, so those can be scrapped. The final stroke is to go with electric engines. They’re both cheaper to run and smaller than their combustion counterparts, which are pretty large, maintenance heavy and need fuel tanks. The ship will be fully electric, powered by a 4MWh battery pack. All that free space means you can make the ship smaller and lighter without cutting down on its transport capacity. The ship’s design is very neat and compact (by ship standards) judging from this video:

Yara Birkland will also help make Norway that tad greener and less congested, by replacing the 40,000 truck trips currently made annually to transport fertilizer on this route.

Helper oars

Yara Birkland’s first few days afloat, which are “planned to start in the latter half of 2018” will require some human supervision. During this testing and teething period, a single shipping container will be installed on-deck to act as a bridge. A small crew will monitor the ship from here, to ensure that all systems work as they should and to be on-hand in case they don’t. If this early stage is successful, the bridge will be moved off-shore for remote monitoring in 2019, and the ship will be fully autonomous by 2020.

At 34 nautical miles, the ship’s mission doesn’t seem all that impressive, but what matters here is for the vessel to prove it works. If successful it can easily be repurposed to longer routes, “maybe even move our fertilizer from Holland all the way to Brazil,” said Yara’s project leader Petter Ostbo for the Wall Street Journal. The technology bound to be taken up by shipbuilders if it proves its worth, so we’ll likely see a lot more autonomous ships in the future.

“Once the regulation is in place, I can see this spreading fast, there is a lot of interest from operators of coastal tankers, fish-transport vessels and supply ships that are knocking on our door,” said Kongsberg’s CEO Geir Haoy.

It’s a car, it’s a shop, it’s AI — it’s Moby Mart

Shanghai can boast the world’s first fully autonomous, self-driving, solar-powered and drone-wielding drive-to-you — the Moby Mart.

If you think self-checkout machines are the height of supermarket tech, you must be living anywhere that’s not Shanghai. This city can now boast the world’s first fully mobile supermarket with the advent of Wheelys‘ Moby Mart. While fully capable of driving itself, the Moby will operate as a (remotely) human-driven vehicle until autonomous vehicles are legalized.

Driverless or not, the store remains a remarkable bit of engineering. Developed in cooperation with Himalayafy and Hefei University of Technology, the store is cleanly powered by solar panels and carries air filters to help reduce smog as it drives around town serving customers. An app will let you know if one of the stores is driving past nearby and all you have to do is step in, take what you need, and go out, as the onboard AI will automatically tally what you purchase and charge them to your phone.

via Wheelys Café / Facebook.

Or if you’re feeling especially lazy, you can have one of the shop’s 4 drones deliver your stuff.

When stocks of any item are running low, the Moby will drive itself to a warehouse to be restocked or tap into cloud technology to locate a close-by peer and exchange their surplus products with something they need. In a pinch, the drones may also be delegated to restocking duty.

Moby can operate as a miniature version of a pharmacy or coffee shop, for example, and carries an ATM and first aid devices like defibrillators for emergency situations.

The first self-driving taxis are here — and by “here” I mean Singapore

This Thursday, Singapore will become the first city in the world to use self-driving taxis.

The first ever autonomous taxis will be available in Singapore. Image credits nuTonomy.

The first ever autonomous taxis will be available in Singapore.
Image credits nuTonomy.

With huge players such as Google or Volvo toying around with self-driving cars on public roads, most of us probably expected that the future fully automated vehicles we’d zip around in would be developed by one such huge company. But, for a handful of Singapore residents, the future is now — and it’s brought by the small, autonomous vehicle software startup nuTonomy. The company will become the first to ever offer the public a chance to ride in autonomous vehicles, beating ride-hailing service Uber — which plans to offer a similar service in Pittsburgh — by a few weeks.

Their fleet will start out small, six cars right now, but will double by the end of the year. Their end goal is to have Singapore’s taxi system fully automated by 2018, NuTonomy officials said. This will drastically reduce the numbers of cars clogging Singapore’s congested roads. But there’s nothing to stop them from expanding the model to other cities later, they added.

Right now, however, the taxis will only operate in a 2.5-square-mile office and residential district known as “one-north,” with specific pick-up and drop-off locations. The users will have to receive an invitation from nuTonomy to use the service, and the company says dozens have signed up for the launch, with several thousands more expected to join within the next few months.

NuTonomy vehicles — modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric models — will be fitted with six sets of Lidar to help it navigate its surroundings, including one that spins on the roof for a full 360-degree field of detection. Lidar is a system very similar to radar, only it uses laser beams instead of radio waves. Two cameras installed on the dashboard will scan for obstacles and detect changes in traffic lights. And, if all these fail, there’s a human driver in the front seat ready to take the wheel in an emergency, and a researcher in the back monitoring the car’s computers.


The testing time frame is open-ended, said nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma. Users will eventually start paying for the service, as more pick-up and drop-off points are added. He also said that company plans to test similar services in other Asian, European, and U.S. cities, but didn’t give any dates or places.

“I don’t expect there to be a time where we say, ‘We’ve learned enough,'” Iagnemma told the Associated Press.

Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s chief operating officer, says that their autonomous taxis could reduce the number of cars on Singapore’s roads by two-thirds, from 900,000 to some 300,000 cars.

“When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities. You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks,” Parker added. “I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward.”

NuTonomy was formed in 2013 by Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers working on robotics and autonomous vehicles for the Defense Department, and currently has offices in Massachusetts and Singapore. They received Singapore’s approval to test self-driving cars in one-north earlier this year, and it announced a research partnership with Singapore’s Land Transport Authority earlier this month. Pretty impressive for a 50-man strong company.

The team behind the autonomous taxis. Image via nuTonomy.

The team behind the autonomous taxis.
Image via nuTonomy.

Iagnemma says that they chose Singapore for their testing area because it has good weather, quality infrastructure, and drivers who tend to obey traffic laws — an ideal spot to test autonomous vehicles. Due to limited available space, Singapore’s also been on the lookout for non-traditional ways to grow its economy, so it’s been supportive of autonomous vehicle research. Delphi Corp., which is also working on autonomous vehicle software, was recently selected to test autonomous vehicles on the island and plans to start next year.

“We face constraints in land and manpower. We want to take advantage of self-driving technology to overcome such constraints, and in particular to introduce new mobility concepts which could bring about transformational improvements to public transport in Singapore,” said Pang Kin Keong, Singapore’s Permanent Secretary for Transport and the chairman of its committee on autonomous driving.

Users are reporting that nuTonomy’s taxis work like a dream. Olivia Seow, one of the riders the company selected, took a one-mile ride on Monday. She said she was nervous at first, then surprised as the steering wheel started turning by itself.

“It felt like there was a ghost or something,” she said.

The ride was smooth and controlled, she said, and she was relieved to see that the car recognized even small obstacles like birds and motorcycles parked in the distance.

“I couldn’t see them with my human eye, but the car could, so I knew that I could trust the car,” she said.

An Associated Press reporter took a ride on Wednesday and reported that the safety driver had to step on the brakes once when a car was obstructing the test car’s lane and another vehicle, which appeared to be parked, suddenly began moving in the oncoming lane.

Iagnemma is confident that the software can be relied on to make good decisions. For the future, nuTonomy hopes to eventually partner up with automakers, tech and logistics companies and other industry leaders to further the development of autonomous vehicles.

“What we’re finding is the number of interested parties is really overwhelming,” he said.


First solar-powered boat to cross the Atlantic embarks on historical journey

The Solar Voyager — a small, autonomous solar-powered boat — is braving the winds and waves of the Atlantic Ocean to show the power of green energy. The craft left Boston harbor on June 1st and is expected to land in Portugal in October.

Image via inhabitat

Back in 2013, engineers Christopher Sam Soon and Isaac Penny started building a solar-powered boat powerful enough to brave the world’s oceans on its own from scratch. They’re not the first to try this — Wave Glider had been launched just a year before, relying on waves to power it forward on its journey. But Wave glider was funded by California based Liquid Robotics, while Soon and Penny had no such help. The duo designed and built the craft by themselves, working on the project in their spare time after work. Anyone can build a ship like they did, Penny said.

“Only Liquid Robotics can build a Wave Glider, but anyone can do what we did. We don’t even have a garage!” laughed Penny.

Solar Voyager’s photovoltaic panels can churn out 7 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy every day in summer and 3 kWh in winter. The ship was built from aluminum, which the engineers chose over the usual “glass reinforced plastic” used in other autonomous crafts for its better resilience. On the flip-side, the metal also makes the craft heavier and thus more energy consuming, but the team hopes it will help it survive the harsh open ocean. Just to make sure though, the engineers monitor their little boat through the Iridium satellite network, and can receive updated data every 15 minutes.

“Durability is the obvious problem, but there isn’t an obvious solution,” Penny told techcrunch. “Designing something that runs for a day is one thing — designing something that will run for months in such harsh conditions with no one there to fix it is different.”

Image via inhabitat

So why did they do it? To show the world that solar energy isn’t just an alternative — often times it’s the best solution.

“We always think about solar as this alternative energy thing, but you just couldn’t do this with fossil fuels – you couldn’t build something that will run forever,” Penny said.

“Whether it’s long endurance drones, or data gathering for maritime security, or monitoring wildlife preserves – solar isn’t just an alternative form of energy, it’s the best solution. It brings something to the table that nothing else has.”

The engineers are now looking for a boat owner in Portugal who can help them collect the Solar Voyager once it makes its journey. If you want to cheer the little ship onward, you can check on the Solar Voyager and see its current position here.

First U.S. testing of a man-carrying drone planned for later this year in Nevada

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems has granted permission to Chinese drone company EHang to test its on-demand, passenger-carrying aerial vehicle inside state boundaries. This marks the first time a passenger-carrying drone has ever been tested anywhere in the United States.

Chinese company EHang received testing rights for its EHang 184 model inside the state of Nevada on Monday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. The vehicle is an autonomous human sized drone, which EHang was very happy to hail as the future of personal transport at the CES 2016 conference in Las Vegas. The company already produces a consumer model known as the “Ghost Drone,” which lead some to believe that the 184 is more of a marketing tool for their regular product.

Well, the vehicle certainly is eye-catching.

EHang 184 being presented at CES 2016.
Image via techcrunch

The press kit described the drone as “about four-and-a-half feet tall, weighs 440 pounds, and will be able to carry a single passenger for 23 minutes at a speed of 60 MPH. The 184 also has gull-wing doors and arms that fold up.” They also have a pretty cool video showing the drone in flight and its development process.


So does it have any merit on its own, or is it just a shiny “look at me” lure for the company’s staple Ghost Drone? We’ll have to wait for the test results, planned for later this year, to find out. But there is a lot of excitement at Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) for the testing.

“We will help them submit necessary test results and reports to the FAA and all that kind of stuff,” Mark Barker, the institute’s director, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“It’s a big deal for EHang and it’s a big deal for NIAS and the state of Nevada because we will be helping them to test and validate their system.”

There’s a lot hanging on the outcome of these tests — alongside smart cars, autonomous flying vehicles like the 184 and Ghost Drone could very well be the future of transport. And possibly, the future of getting frisky.


Expert warns smart-cars will promote sex behind the wheel and distracted driving

Will widespread use of smart cars make roads safer or actually more dangerous? One Canadian expert is raising concerns that as automated systems take up the bulk of navigating tasks, drivers will keep their hands less on the driving wheel…and more on the person (persons?) next to them.

Image via scmp.com

Drop whatever you were doing and rejoice because science has delivered.

“I am predicting that, once computers are doing the driving, there will be a lot more sex in cars,” said Barrie Kirk of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

It truly is a wonderful time to be alive. But, before we go about congratulating and patting each other on the back in satisfaction, is this a good thing? I mean beyond the obvious fact that we all like to get it on.

There is legitimate concern around this question, not because of the cars themselves but because of the drivers. I see people texting or talking on the phone at the wheel — and these aren’t particularly enjoyable activities — every day, driving regular vehicles without any computers to watch the road for them. But if people trust their cars enough to handle themselves in traffic, they’ll throw their phones along with their pants on the back seat before you can say “responsible driving practices.”

“That’s one of several things people will do which will inhibit their ability to respond quickly when the computer says to the human, ‘Take over.'”

Canadian Press obtained several federal emails discussing Tesla’s self-driving cars under the Access to Information Act. In them, officials tasked with constructing the legislative framework for autonomous cars took up the issue in the briefing notes compiled for Transport Minister Marc Garneau after his appointment last fall.

“The issue of the attentive driver is … problematic,” one such email reads. “Drivers tend to overestimate the performance of automation and will naturally turn their focus away from the road when they turn on their auto-pilot.”

The emails cite several pieces of footage showing Tesla drivers doing anything else than paying attention to the road, such as reading a newspaper for example. Other videos show Tesla owners recording flaws in how the car’s autopilot system reacts to changes in road markings.

Therein lies the problem: Tesla itself made it clear that the autopilot system only has limited autonomy and functionality. It’s designed to work in tandem with a human, not to replace him. And people still behave like it’s their personal chauffeur. Transport Canada tested several semi-autonomous vehicles, such as Mercedes’ C-Class or the Infiniti Q50 (but not the Tesla so far,) the documents go on to detail. While they found the systems efficient at what they do, the technology is still in its infancy.

“It really needs to be emphasized that these vehicles are not truly self-driving,” officials said. They predicted that fully-autonomous cars and trucks are “still a few years away.”

Current vehicle safety standards don’t prohibit driverless cars from zooming on Canada’s roadways, and the country is now considering how to regulate such vehicles.

“But last month’s federal budget included money for Transport Canada to develop regulations around automated vehicle design. Those regulations, at least initially, would require that the vehicles are equipped with a ‘failsafe mechanism that can respond to situations when the driver is not available,'” CBC writes. “Ontario also set out some regulations, including a requirement that an expert in autonomous vehicles be in the driver’s seat and able to assume full control at a moment’s notice.”

The “failsafe mechanism” basically means that the car should be able to safely get out of traffic until a human assumes control — and that should be at the center of how we handle this I think. Because that “expert in autonomous vehicles,ready at a moment’s notice” part? I think that’s wishful thinking.

The whole point of having autonomous cars is that no driver is required, and people won’t be willing to wait, clutching the wheel, on the off chance they’re needed. It’s got to go all the way, or at least allow for a window of time in which the driver can analyze the situation, plan his movements and assume control. Assuming that a driver who may not have been paying attention to his or her surroundings can control a vehicle right off the bat is a tall order however, Kirk believes.

“People will not be able to respond in time.”

It’s a good thing that we come face to face with these issues now, before autonomous vehicles truly hit the roads. But they just aren’t here yet, so you’ll have to keep your eyes on the road until they do. And yes, your hands on the wheel, too.