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Satellite and 4G/5G-driven autonomous shuttle hits the road in Oxfordshire

Darwin Innovation Group is running an autonomous shuttle to transport passengers around Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in a one-year trial funded by UK and European space agencies to demonstrate how self-driving vehicles operate in a real-world setting, with data transmitted via O2’s mobile networks and Hispasat’s satellites

The latest act of the Aviva and Darwin Innovation Group five-year strategic partnership has seen a fully autonomous passenger shuttle service, controlled by 5G and satellite connectivity, begin trials on UK roads.

The service is being trialled by Darwin Innovation Group, with support from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK Space Agency. An autonomous shuttle will transport passengers around Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, which is home to a number UK’s most innovative companies and research organisations.

The trial is part of a project from insurance giant Aviva and Darwin which began in October 2020, which itself is the culmination of a four-year venture supported by O2 and the ESA, when the telco opened the Darwin SatCom Lab, the UK’s first commercial laboratory for 5G and satellite communications, at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus. The laboratory enables companies to explore next-generation connectivity for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) using 5G and satellite communications.

Created by self-driving solutions provider Navya, the vehicle will be controlled by 5G and satellite connectivity and will be able to pick passengers up, transport them around the campus and drop them off at their destination, without the involvement of a human driver. Similar Navya shuttles have been used in an urban setting in Switzerland and have safely transported tens of thousands of passengers.

The shuttle uses Lidar sensors, cameras and ultrasound sensors to navigate safely around any obstacles. It also features a satellite (GNSS) antenna for positioning. The vehicle has no steering wheel, but does have safety controls, which will be managed by an onboard operator throughout the trial. A second shuttle is expected to be added in the second year of operation.

The shuttle service will help demonstrate the potential of self-driving vehicles to operate in a real-world setting, serving as a step towards the wider use of this technology in the UK. Being battery powered, the trial will also aim to show that the future of public transportation can be green as well as autonomous. The potential to transport passengers while emitting zero carbon, if put in place more widely, could help the UK towards its emission reduction targets.

Autonomous shuttle transports passengers around the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire

Darwin will maintain and monitor the service, tracking the shuttle’s location and gathering information about its operation as it travels. Telematics data will be transmitted from the shuttle in real time using Hispasat’s satellite communication channels and O2’s 4G and 5G networks.

Darwin stressed that the use of satellite communications in the latest trial was “significant”. It noted that in previous trials autonomous vehicles have relied on terrestrial Wi-Fi to stay connected, but by making use of satellites in addition to 4G and 5G, Darwin said autonomous vehicles could operate in rural or remote areas that may not yet have complete terrestrial coverage.

“We’re thrilled to play a part in demonstrating the real-world potential of autonomous vehicles. We believe that CAV trials can help move the UK towards greener, more efficient and more accessible modes of transport”
Daniela Petrovic, Darwin

The autonomous shuttle service operates at Harwell Science Campus on weekdays, morning to evening. It travels two routes, one along Fermi Avenue and one along Eighth Avenue, with the ESA building being the central stop for both routes. There is no cost to ride the shuttle, which is currently available to campus passholders and registered guests of passholders.

“We’re thrilled to play a part in demonstrating the real-world potential of autonomous vehicles,” said Darwin delivery director Daniela Petrovic. “Self-driving cars are no longer theoretical, and we believe that CAV trials can help move the UK towards greener, more efficient and more accessible modes of transport.”

“This is another exciting milestone in making connected autonomous vehicles a reality, from concept to deployment on our roads,” added Sergio Budkin, director of market development at Virgin Media O2. “We’re proud to not only be utilising our award-winning network, but also creating the app for real-time tracking, providing another innovative 4G and 5G use case that’s making a difference to society and the way we live.”

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