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The Oxford Robotics Institute (ORI) holds a world leading position in research on all aspects of land-based autonomous vehicles. The transition from research demonstration to early industrial take up needs substantial professional engineering, which cannot be undertaken by research engineers alone. Professor Paul Newman, from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science, used EPSRC IAA funding to smooth that transition.

Demonstrating excellence in mobile autonomy

Mobile robotics is one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’ prioritised by the UK government in 2013. The focus of ORI (formerly the Mobile Robotics Group) is to invent the technologies that allow machines to ask and answer “Where am I?”, “What surrounds me?” and “What should I do next?”.

EPSRC IAA funded Impact Acceleration Engineers were brought in to fully exploit the existing industrial interest in the ORI’s research outputs. Their work involved documenting the software created by the ORI for autonomous vehicles (e.g. creating user manuals), packaging the code base into items suitable for licensing, and performing field trials at potential partner and sponsor sites.

A large amount of activity was made possible by the IAA Engineers. Engagement with the UK Space Agency resulted in licences for ORI code being adopted by the EXOMARS project. The group was able to perform large scale demonstrations of their technology, one of which was at NACCO Materials Handling Group for warehouse navigation and telemetry. ORI also engaged with Amey, a road maintenance and construction company, who were interested in being able to perform mobile laser surveys to detect road surfaces in need of repair. Through this project they collected data that will allow them to evaluate new approaches to the problem.

Perhaps most importantly, EPSRC IAA funding led to the spin out of Oxbotica in 2014. The company was formed with the explicit purpose of building on impact acceleration outcomes to promote uptake of the group’s technology. It now provides a range of autonomous control system technologies; its prime product is Selenium, which is currently being deployed in autonomous vehicles that will drive on ordinary roads. Through the LUTZ (Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone) Pathfinder programme, an electric-powered autonomous two-seater pod was equipped with sensor and navigation technology provided by the group, and was successfully tested in public in Milton Keynes in October 2016 - a UK first.

Oxbotica is pushing on with the development of the next generation of autonomous vehicles and has won numerous business awards. The DRIVEN consortium, led by Oxbotica, benefits from an £8.6 million grant awarded by Innovate UK. It is an ambitious project that will see a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles being deployed in urban areas and on motorways, culminating in an end-to-end autonomous journey that runs from London to Oxford. The consortium’s 30-month project plan, which started in July 2017 and has backing from the UK Government, seeks to remove fundamental barriers to real-world commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles.

'We are on the cusp of a transformation of our transport system, enabled by the research being done now into autonomous vehicles by teams such as this at the University of Oxford. This has the potential to deliver safer roads, more efficient transport networks, more transport options for those who find it tough to get around, and high value jobs in the future automotive and technology sectors.'

-          Iain Forbes, Head of the UK Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles