Just as one famous old university town, Cambridge, looks set to sell Britain’s only bona fide tech giant, for a bona fide tech giant price of £24bn, which is what it will cost Japanese Software behemoth Softbank to prise Arm Technologies away from its current owner / founders, another looks like it might be in with a chance of creating Britain’s next.
Oxbotica, based in guess where? That’s right, Oxfordshire, launched Selenium, its patented algorithmic mobile autonomy software solution, last week, at the Culham Science Centre.
Selenium allows vehicles to “autonomously perform a range of mobility tasks, including motion control, braking, calibration, navigation, and static and dynamic obstacle detection”.
In plain English, this is software that could power a self-driving car, and indeed, to celebrate the launch of Selenium and showcase its abilities, Oxbotica even commissioned a purpose built vehicle, named Geni, which you can see in action in the video below, making its way around a purpose built track, unaided.
Oxbotica’s software is used to power the Oxford RobotCar – the UK’s first autonomous car to be approved for public trials, and powers the majority of the winning bids of the UKs Driverless Car Challenge
The software doesn’t require GPS to function, so it can work both indoors and outdoors; it is also “vehicle agnostic”, meaning it can power anything from “self-driving pods” used on campuses and at airports for example, to fleets of trucks at warehouses.
Selenium is in line for trials, as the sole supplier of autonomy software, at the £8m GATEway project in Greenwich, the LUTZ pathfinder self-driving pod project in Milton Keynes, as well as with a number of manufacturers across a broad spectrum of “mobile autonomy domains”.
“Selenium represents the culmination of about 130 person years’ worth of work in mobile autonomy”, commented Oxbotica’s CEO, Dr. Graeme Smith, adding “our customers are able to take full advantage of the benefits on offer from this futuristic technology today rather than tomorrow.”
Dr. Smith is “an automotive veteran with substantial start-up experience in connected and autonomous vehicles”, according to his PR agency, including a stint as Director of Ford Motor Company’s Telematics Support Services, and Executive Director of Ford / Qualcomm telematics joint venture Wingcast Europe.
Smith supports Oxbotica’s two founders, Paul Newman and Ingmar Posner, both Oxford University Professors and leaders of the University’s Mobile Robotics Group – from which Oxbotica was spun out in 2014. The company has already been named one of 2015’s “Top 10 Tech Companies to Watch” by the Wall Street Journal, and won the Frost and Sullivan “Leaders in Autonomy Software 2016” award.
Oxbotica does not manufacture Google-style driverless cars (yet), but instead focuses on vehicles, be they boats, trains, pods or cars, that can work in potentially hazardous environments such as nuclear plants, although they have also begun to work with motor industry companies, and vehicle manufacturers.
The company has obtained IP rights over an impressive sounding 70+ modular pieces of mobile autonomy including “patents, software and knowhow” which can be used to enable Oxbotica’s partners to seamlessly integrate their technology.
From mid-2016 Oxbotica will be using Selenium to power 8 shuttle vehicles, developed by Westfield cars and Heathrow Airport, as part of a 6-month demonstration which is open to members of the public to try out.
At the same time, they will introduce the Caesium Shuttle Management System, which uses the cloud to co-ordinate and schedule their fleet of autonomous vehicles which can be booked (and journeys planned) using smartphone, and data exchanged with the vehicles, without the requirement for human intervention.
In Milton Keynes city centre in 2017 Selenium will also be used to power pods that will be able to transport members of the public around the city, travelling through pedestrianised areas and linking between key transportation hubs. The company are also engaged in developing 3D maps and using these to allow their autonomous vehicles to detect obstacles in their path.
Before we start heralding Oxbotica’s progress as a “Ford replaces horse and cart” moment for the transport industry, we should bear in mind that progress has, and will continue to be, incremental, particularly so given the extremely hazardous nature of trying to replace human drivers with AI.
It’s still a long way off – evidence in the case of driverless cars can sometimes be hard to gauge – to what extent is the vehicle following a hard and fast set of pre-set commands, versus responding spontaneously to what it can determine is around it.
In Oxbotica’s case the latter is increasingly becoming a reality, and therefore it’s a welcome boost for British tech – as we wave goodbye to ownership of Arm Technologies, it’s worth remembering that that company grew from an acorn of an idea into a mighty, game-influencing, if not game changing oak.
Oxbotica, it seems, has similar potential, promising to “leverage the innovative and world leading outputs of the UK’s premier mobile robotics group, enabling rapid commercialisation with our industry partners and further application of spin-off technologies”, and delivering a slice of Valley-style wow factor to boot.