Dan JellinekEditorTuesday 23 December 2014

Boost for Milton Keynes "open innovation environment"

A LUTZ Pathfinder two-seater electric autonomous driving pod, as set to be tested in Milton KeynesFOCUS: SMART SERVICES

The Autumn Statement announcement of Milton Keynes as one of four UK places - with Bristol, Greenwich and Coventry - set to share £10 million to test driverless cars was the latest boost to the city's bid to create an "open innovation environment".

Its vision has two main strands: to allow companies to develop new business models; and to use data to address key strategic challenges. Both goals are being supported by the creation of the MK: Smart data hub, one of largest such projects in the UK alongside Glasgow and Bristol.

Built with a £16m investment including £8m from Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and with BT as primary technology supplier, the hub has the aim of pulling together "vast amounts of data relevant to city systems" from varied sources including energy and water consumption, transport data, data acquired by satellite, social and economic datasets, and crowdsourced data from social media or specialised apps.

Geoff Snelling, director of strategy at Milton Keynes Council, told UKAuthority.com this week the plan stems from the need to create a sustainable infrastructure to handle its rapid growth rate -a population set to climb from 230,000 to more than 300,000 by 2026.

Transport is a key area of focus, with road travel forecast to increase by 60% in the years to 2026 through a combination of population growth and increasing economic activity.

Projects up and running include electric buses that can receive booster charges wirelessly through induction plates embedded in the road; and a suite of "intelligent mobility" projects covering two separate driverless car trials.

The first trial is of autonomous driverless "pods": shared community vehicles that run on the pavement, manufactured by Coventry-based RDM Group with support from the Transport Systems Catapult, a government-backed innovation fund based in Milton Keynes.

The first three pods are due to be running in tests by the end of March next year, said Snelling. "What this new funding award allows us to do is scale the pods up to a fleet of around 40, so an approximation of a real service model", he said.

"It's a bit like a Boris bike type project, for community transport. They will take a person somewhere and then go off autonomously to pick up another rider from elsewhere."

The second set of trials will test driverless systems in next-generation saloon cars working with three major motor manufacturers: Jaguar Land Rover, Tata and Ford.

"In the near future, a lot of this technology will be like advanced forms of driver assist, but we are looking beyond that to a future where complete autonomy forms at least part of a journey", Snelling said.

"All these companies have their own development programmes for autonomous mobility, but while they can all test their products in a factory or a test track, they also need to come to an environment where their products meet each other. It's a classic case where there is a fair degree of secrecy around technology but a need to collaborate around certain aspects as well, to make standards."

Starting in early January, the initiative will run a series of test days increasing in complexity over time, at first isolated and then interacting with normal cars driven by trained drivers in a facsimile of a real operating environment, he said.

In running such trials, the relatively modern street layout of Milton Keynes - a new town dating from the 1960s - is an advantage: "We can close down roads or sections of roads, or segregate traffic in ways a more traditional city might struggle to do."

Eventually, all the transport projects will be a key source of data streaming live into the data hub, Snelling said. "As part of the hub we are developing a city motion map, a real time view of transport movement which will have all sorts of applications like traffic management for city planners, and to help the public avoid traffic."

The system forms "part of a general theme to provide people with more bespoke services - rather than having to work around bus and train timetables, public transport could be responsive to their needs, taking them where they want, when they want.

"At the moment, we give people all sorts of community transport rides. But if we get this right, we can put power and budgets into hands of users to choose services that suit their needs, instead of in some cases subsidising buses that chug around the city nearly empty."

Another smart service scheme is being implemented in neighbourhood recycling centres, which are placing sensors in bins to report when they are full, he said. Specialist software then calculates the most efficient route for wagon to go round and empty bins, potentially generating major cost efficiencies.

Other smart projects include a citywide wireless internet network; an innovation incubator for small firms using data from the hub at a new facility at the University Campus Milton Keynes, led by the Open University; and other education, business and community engagement activities, including a smart city education programme for schools and students; and activity to engage citizens in decision-making through a Citizen Lab.

"The work will give us better intelligence on how to direct interventions and how to manage things more accurately", Snelling said. "As we develop this kind of thinking, there are bound to be benefits for public services."

Pictured: A LUTZ Pathfinder two-seater electric autonomous driving pod, as set to be tested in Milton Keynes
MK: Smart: www.mksmart.org