Autonomous Transport: Trains and Boats and Planes

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Autonomous Transport: Trains and Boats and Planes

More than fifty years ago, Dionne Warwick had a hit with Trains and Boats and Planes. Today, all of these vehicles are operated in ways nobody would have imagined back then – but what we can expect in the near future is even more astonishing with autonomous transport.

by Rainer Claassen

These days you read a lot about autonomous cars but you rarely see any. Of course, there are assisting systems that make steering a lot easier under certain conditions – but when the driving environment becomes more complex, the systems are less reliable. It will probably still take a while until you just have to climb into a car and tell it where to take you.

There are other means of transport, of course, and many of them move in surroundings that seem a lot easier to handle. So what’s new on the tracks, on the water, and in the air?

All Aboard the Auto-Train

With increasing traffic jams and rising awareness of the environmental impact of cars, many people are switching to public transport. The Dutch rail network, for example, projected that the number of passengers would increase by at least 45 percent by 2030. Freight volumes are also rising and the Dutch railway company ProRail is searching for ways to make better use of the existing infrastructure.

“There are so many trains on the grid that the distance between them is relatively short,” said Rick van der Mand, project manager of an autonomous transport driving experiment that ProRail carried out with partners Arriva and Stadler in March 2019. “It’s so busy that congestion is never far away. Automation may prevent that.”

Autonomous Transport - ProRail - Best of both Worlds

Best of Both Worlds The Dutch railway company ProRail is experimenting with semiautonomous trains built by Arriva and Stadler. Stopping and starting is automated, but a driver handles the doors and intervenes in case of an emergency.

In a week-long trial on the Groningen to Zuidhorn line, the group tested a modified railcar produced by Swiss manufacturer Stadler, undertaking a first run operating in Grade of Automation 2 (GoA 2) – semiautomatic train operation where starting and stopping is automated but a driver operates the doors, drives the train if needed, and handles emergencies. With a driver in attendance, the train made automated stops at Groningen, Hoogkerk, and Zuidhorn. ProRail hailed this as a success and is continuing the trial but the company is not yet ready to set a date on when the first autonomous trains will be in everyday operation.

ATO (Automatic Train Operation) not only allows trains to operate more frequently at shorter headways and to stop more precisely but also improves energy consumption through the optimization of acceleration, speed, and braking. ProRail is also investigating the use of ATO on freight trains and, in conjunction with Rotterdam Rail Feeding and Alstom, they ran a modified locomotive on the Betuwe route in 2018.

A more impressive example of an autonomous freight train is already operating steadily on the other side of the world: in the Pilbara region of Western Australia in July 2018, mining company Rio Tinto delivered iron ore by autonomous train for the first time. The AutoHaul project train consists of three locomotives, is 2.4 kilometers long, and can carry up to 28,000 tons of iron ore. It travels more than 280 kilometers north from the mining operations in Tom Price to the port of Cape Lambert.

Australia AutoHaul - Rio Tinto

Getting the Ore Out: The Australian mining company Rio Tinto hauls up to 28,000 tons of iron ore a day via a 2.4-kilometer-long driverless train aptly christened “AutoHaul.”

The train operators are located in the Rio Tinto Operations Centre in Perth – which is more than 1,300 kilometers south of the mines. “There is a train controller at the Operations Centre in Perth who sets the route – but once it’s running the on-board computers and the computers at the Operations Centre take over and it makes its own decisions,” says Lido Costa, principal engineer on the AutoHaul project, “and there are a whole lot of other devices in place to protect people and equipment. For instance, if one of the wheels has a fault, the train will be brought to a stop, or if one of the couplers in the train is broken, the system will pick it up and stop the train.” The computers keep the train to the speed limit and protect it from collisions with other trains or obstacles and all public rail crossings on the network are fitted with CCTV cameras.

Before the AutoHaul project, the trains had to stop three times during each trip to change drivers, adding one hour to each trip. As the train network is a core part of the mining operation, the effect of the time-saving is enormous but the system also improves safety. “We are removing the need to transport drivers 1.5 million kilometers each year to and from trains as they change their shift. This high-risk activity is something that driverless trains will largely reduce,” says Costa.

IoT is all at Sea

Trains have one big advantage over automatization of other vehicles: they roll on tracks and there are rarely any obstacles that cannot be foreseen so navigation is rather easy. With ships it is completely different. When trying to make a boat navigate autonomously, wind and current have to be considered and there is always a risk of hitting reefs or other vessels. A pioneer in the field of autonomous transport shipping is Norwegian company Yara International, a producer of crop fertilizers. In 2018, it presented plans for a vessel named Yara Birkeland. The company announced it as the world’s first fully electric container feeder. “Investing in this zero-emission vessel to transport our crop nutrition solutions fits our strategy well. We are proud to work with Kongsberg to realize the world’s first autonomous, all-electric vessel to enter commercial operation,” says Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of Yara.

investing in zero-emission vessels fits our strategy well.

Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of Yara

Svein Tore Holsether - president and CEO of Yara

Norwegian shipbuilder Vard will deliver the ship for launch in early 2020 and, compared to the large container ships on the oceans, it will be rather small with a capacity of 100 to 150 shipping containers. Initially, the vessel will be operated by a small staff but will gradually move to fully autonomous operation by 2022. With the aid of GPS, radar, cameras, and sensors, the ship will be able to navigate, dock, and leave the quay without assistance.

Yara’s project shows some of the obstacles in the way of the rapid development of autonomous shipping:

  • Harbors need to have the necessary infrastructure
  • Communication between ships must function reliably
  • Ships need to be able to communicate wherever they are – even under bad weather conditions
  • Technology has to be integrated into the existing infrastructure
  • Solutions have to be compulsively cost-effective

In this case, the project is operating in a rather small and very safe area. There are just two harbors involved and they’re only about 30 kilometers away from the production facility. Since the project replaces the expensive road transportation of goods, amortization of the high cost will not take very long. In addition, the vessel serves as a beacon project. The developers describe the whole project as “a huge turning point for the global shipping industry.”

Autonomous Transport - Vard Shipping Container Boat

Leading the Way: This freighter built by Vard still requires a small crew and can only hold about 150 shipping containers, but larger, fully autonomous ships are already in planning.

There are many small companies and start-ups doing development and research in this area but we will probably see remote-controlled ships long before they go fully autonomous. Netherlands-based Kotug demonstrated this live at the international tug, salvage, and offshore support vessel (OSV) convention ITS 2018 in Marseille, France. For the presentation, a captain took over control of the steering and engine systems of a tug in Rotterdam (over 900 km away) using a secured Internet connection and live cameras. The company stated: “The real-time sensor technology makes it possible to give the remotecontrol captain the situational awareness that is needed for safe operation. Combined with the drone technology to connect the towline, unmanned shipping is commercially and technically getting closer.”

Robo-Pilots ready for Takeoff

In a Q-Series Report in 2017, investment bank UBS stated, “Commercial jets already take off and land using their on-board computers, and several other in-flight functions are performed or confirmed by computers. Indeed, the pilot’s task is increasingly focused on managing and overseeing the aircraft and its systems.”

Autonomous Transport - Airbus Vahana

Taxis in Flight: In January, Airbus’ Vahana team successfully flew their autonomous air taxi for the first time, combining electric propulsion and machine vision in order to “democratize personal flight”.

While the vast majority of ships carry cargo, airplanes are mostly used by travelers. This leads to one of the biggest obstacles in the way of autonomous planes: fear. “The UBS worldwide report Flying Solo: How far are we down the path towards pilotless planes?” concerning the future of air transportation canvassed more than 8,000 people. The authors found that 54 percent of the respondents said they would refuse to board a pilotless aircraft – and a lower fare would not make them change their mind. The number of people who said they’d be happy to fly on a plane without a pilot was only 17 percent. The report’s conclusion shows that the question was current: “Technically speaking, remotely-controlled planes carrying passengers and cargo could appear by 2025.”

Sooner or later they will appear, since the report also found the industry spends more than $30 billion on pilots annually. Before passenger acceptance increases, the first noteworthy steps in this direction will likely be seen in cargo flights. The two big players in this field, Airbus and Boeing, are working on the subject, but they are keeping quiet about it and there is hardly any information available.

Both companies are more open about their smaller, autonomous air “taxis.” Boeing, for example, proudly published information about a successful test they did with an autonomous passenger air vehicle in January 2019. The prototype completed a controlled takeoff, hover, and landing to test the autonomous functions and ground control systems.

Autonomous Transport - Boeing Uber Aurora

Liftoff Achieved: Also in January, Boeing successfully tested its frst autonomous passenger air vehicle (PAV) prototype, an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, from an airstrip in Manassas, Virginia.

It’s not only the big companies that are working on this theme; start-ups, like the Bavarian company Lilium, are developing quickly. So it may well happen that small, battery-driven air vehicles will be the first commercial autonomous flying objects – and if passengers have trust in them, they may eventually accept bigger planes without pilots.

It looks like we are very close to revolutions in trains and boats and planes. The technology for autonomous vehicles is already available but what’s still missing are standards for communications across several systems, acceptance with passengers, and more results from field testing. We have only looked at a few use cases but there are many more examples and the revolution could happen faster than we think.

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