Today’s Innovation Drives Tomorrows AV

(American Energy Society) – Pundits debate the timing of the current transportation revolution – traditional combustion-fueled piston-driven engine car sales remain strong worldwide, and yet the advent of ride-hailing companies (such as Uber and Lyft), the rise of all-electric cars (Teslas, Volts, Pri’i, etc.), the availability of shared cars (like Zipcars), and the emergence of autonomous driverless automobiles (is Waymo still in the lead?) are signs that cars in the future will be autonomous, connected, electric and shared. And that some companies are going to make trillions of dollars introducing these new technologies.  The business case is clear – a first-wave transportation revolution is heating up. But the second wave of the revolution will be as powerful if not more so than the first.  Researchers are teaming up with private industry and federal labs to test the next generation of transportation technologies for land, sea, and space.

Lamborghini and MIT partner to create a self-healing supercar

Collaboration between Lamborghini and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is producing a killer supercar: the Terzo Millenio. This is Lambo’s first all-electric concept car, and sports nifty features like self-healing bodywork and semi-autonomous driving capability.

Like any self-respecting supercar, the Terzo Millenio is wrapped in attention-grabbing bodywork. The Terzo Millenio is powered by four electric motors, one for each wheel. But instead of a battery pack like the ones used in today’s electric cards, the motors get their electricity from supercapacitors. While automotive applications have been limited so far, Lamborghini believes supercapacitors are the answer to many of the limitations of current electric cars. (Supercapacitors can charge and discharge faster, and store more energy in a given footprint.) The joint research team has also created carbon fiber body panels as an energy-storage medium, essentially turning the bodywork into a battery; the material can also detect small cracks and “heal” itself, preventing the cracks from expanding and causing an outright breakage. And, instead of autonomous driving technology that takes over driving duties completely, the Terzo Millenio coaches owners how to be a better driver, demonstrating for instance the optimum line around a turn –  just like going for a familiarization lap with an instructor, but without the instructor.

Though the Lamborghini Terzo Millenio is not ready for production, this concept car charts a possible course for future generations of supercars.

Rice Researchers Developing the Next Generation of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

Subsea transportation is trickier than it sounds. To the casual observer, oceans offer limitless space without obstacles; AUV researchers see an entirely different world underwater. Rather, an AUV must be able to operate in tight workspaces and perform complex physical movements while shifting unpredictably between full- and semi-autonomy – maneuvers that are technically known as robotic thrusting, mapped localization, and forceful interaction.

Researchers at Rice University are developing the next generation of AUVs capable of maneuvering in complex subsea environments. Rather than propelling thru open-water, the next-gen AUVs have the ability to swim slowly through tight spaces, where docking and breaking motion is critical. Specifically, Rice researchers are focusing on activities like the inspection of leaking oil tanks. Even simple inspection activities have layers of complexity – the AUVs must be able to swim inside a tank to inspect the sealing of the floating roof, or drop to the tank floor to inspect its health (thickness and existence of cracks and metal defects.) Researchers have already developed a “6-degree of freedom” swimming robot that has successfully performed these two tasks.  The Rice University “six-degree” Swimming Robot is currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab – an underwater structure built to recreate the conditions of an oil tank. The robot will perform the maneuvers and physical interactions to simulate identification of a subsea oil-tank leak.

And meanwhile, a parallel Rice research team has already moving on to the next generation of AUVs, with a goal of improving physical operations and maneuverability so that the Swimming Robot is capable of actually repairing a leak in an even more complex subsea environment.

Robotic mining competition for NASA Mars Mission

NASA has set a goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030’s. Such a mission would require 9 months of total travel time, followed by a 16-month stay on the Red Planet, and then another 9 months to return to Earth. For trip of this magnitude, it is absolutely vital to make the most of in-situ resource utilization. To do this NASA plans to send an armada of robotic front runners to Mars to prepare for human arrival, including autonomous vehicle systems that will mine the Martian surface for its regolith which can be used for multiple purposes such as building structures, water reclamation, and even fuel production.

In order to facilitate concept generation and rapid development of full- and semi-autonomous vehicles, NASA holds a Robotic Mining Competition (RMC) every year at Kennedy Space Center.  Broadly, the competition itself consists of two separate ten-minute runs which require the robot to traverse an obstacle field, mine BP-1 (a regolith simulant) from a designated area, and return the regolith to a collection bin at the start area.  However, the challenges of mining Mars are not so straightforward.  It is one thing to operate a robot so that it picks up dirt and then deposits it in a dumpster; it is quite another to do it with a three-minute communication time-lag between Earth and Mars and an erratic and disruptive magnetic field like the one found on Mars.

Nevertheless, for two consecutive years, the team from Virginia Tech has successfully designed and built the award-winning autonomous mining robot: the VaTech Autonomous Regolith Extraction System (A.R.E.S). What set the ARES apart from the competition was its extremely accurate Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that could function without the aid of a magnetic field (according to the VaTech ARES team, their IMU uses only an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a Madgwick filter). The IMU performed phenomenally with negligible low drift even without the aid of an on-board magnetometer.

Virginia Tech will attend the 2018 RMC next year, but this time with greater aspirations than just winning the competition; they hope that NASA will make use of their ARES full-scale autonomous mining system on their maiden pilot voyage to Mars.

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Photo credits:

Image 1 – Lamborghini is relying on MIT to make its cars of the future operate on electricity, while maintaining the aesthetic standards and high-powered mechanical elements that make operating these luxurious sports cars so thrilling from http://news.mit.edu/2017/mit-and-lamborghini-developing-terzo-millenio-electric-car-of-the-future-1117
Photo: Emrick Elias

Image 2 – Underwater image of Rice’s prototype swimming robot maneuvering in a farm pool from http://www.uh.edu/uh-energy/research/ssi-newsletter/autonomous-underwater-vehicles

Image 3: https://www.xsens.com/customer-cases/nasa-mars-mission/

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