Hands off the wheel, human: researchers and industry are automating tractors, ships and even planes.
Why clutter up Amsterdam’s cycle-friendly roads with self-driving buses when autonomous boats can carry people around? In 2017, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions plans to trial floating robots to ferry around commuters and even act as temporary bridges or stages for events. They’ll also be equipped with sensors for environmental tracking and help clean up floating rubbish – including the 12,000 bicycles that go for a swim in Amsterdam’s canals each year. Clever idea, but the best part is the name: Roboat.
The Dutch aren’t alone in turning to autonomous boats. Rolls-Royce has unveiled plans for sensor-driven ships – like those remote-controlled toys splashing in park ponds,only bigger. Its Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) is considering sensors and infrared detectors similar to those on self-driving cars for navigation, with captains at remote controls via satellite broadband.
While trials are already underway, autonomous ships will require enough bandwidth along their entire route, so likely won’t set sail until 2030. When they do arrive, transport costs could fall by a fifth thanks to better fuel efficiency and permanent shore leave for most sailors. They’re not the only ones losing their jobs: pirates will need to upgrade their hacking skills to stay relevant.
Agriculture could start to feel a little more like playing FarmVille, with driverless tractors heading into fields while farmers oversee operations from computers. CNH Industrial showed off its concept for autonomous tractor technology at the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Iowa, noting tractors already feature automatic steering and data collection.
The aim is to take that a step further using radar, cameras and Lidar – range-finding lasers used in driverless cars – to navigate fields and stop in case of obstacles, and to halt work if the weather isn’t quite right for the day’s work.
Farmers will still have work to do, though. They’ll need to input field boundaries, plot a path, and select the job, but can then keep an eye on the task at hand via a camera feed and other tracking tools via an app.
Airborne and autonomous
“This is your captain speaking. We’re now cruising at 40,000ft and I’m a robot.” Is that a phrase you’d be happy to hear? Passenger jets are already essentially automated – autopilot is normally engaged after takeoff until just before the plane lands – but your ticket still includes a pair of pilots in the cockpit. Airbus believes that may change, for smaller flights at least.
It’s shown off a flying-car project called Vahana, which can autonomously fly a single passenger, taking off and landing vertically. A working prototype is expected to take to the skies next year, although whether regulators will approve them zipping about airspace, or passengers be willing to fly pilotless, remains to be seen.
Google is also working on a self-flying plane as part of its Project Wing drone effort, while Uber released a 99-page white paper extolling the merits of an autonomous helicopter to fly people about when roads are clogged with traffic.
The US Air Force Research Lab is hoping to turn its F-16 fighter jets into unmanned war machines, with officials suggesting they could take to the air before driverless ground vehicles head into battle. The pilotless jets won’t be able to take “lethal” action without human interaction and would fly alongside piloted aircraft, an idea dubbed “Loyal Wingman”. Sorry Maverick, you’re no longer needed.
Rail nerds’ dreams of riding the rails as a train driver may soon be even more unlikely than they already are. Some light-rail trains are already partially automated or driverless – as any DLR commuter knows – but the slower speeds, lack of rail traffic, and controls built into the network mean metro services are easier to automate than cross-country and freight railways.
However, while trains may seem easier to automate than cars, mining firm Rio Tinto has struggled to roll out its AutoHaul project, a half-a-billion-dollar attempt to automate its 1,500km heavy haul train network in Australia. The driverless trains have been in the works since 2008, but have been held back by software delays.
That hasn’t dissuaded others from trying. Deutsche Bahn is trialling driverless trains on a test track, saying it will roll out autonomous trains across parts of its network over the next several years, with the company saying the role of the train driver and controller will merge in the future – a fact Deutsche Bahn is already discussing with workers’ unions. Whether they’ll extend the talks to those dreaming of becoming a driver remains to be seen.
Roboracers at the ready
We admit it: roboracers are just faster cars. But the tech that goes into a Formula One racer is different to your budget car, and the DevBot is no exception. The first autonomous racing car hits speeds of 350km/h, and it’s electric, too – although that can be a downside; it failed to start at its first outing at a Hong Kong Formula E race because of a battery fault.
Once the battery woes are sorted, the aim is to have ten driverless cars competing in Roboraces before each Formula E event next year. The hardware in the cars will be identical – powered by Nvidia’s Drive PX 2 platform for AI, with an exterior created by the designer behind the slick bikes in the latest Tron: Legacy film – but each team will use its own software and AI to manoeuvre it around the track, making it a contest between software engineers, rather than drivers.
The aim is to show the potential of self-driving cars, so alongside fast speeds the robocars will also perform stunts such as figure eights and “playing chicken” with other cars. Let’s see Lewis Hamilton do that.