Enabling Safe Mobility for Global Digital Transformation Experts Tout Technologies behind Autonomous Cars, Air Taxis, Drones


For many, the value of digital transformation (DX) rests on how well digital technology can be employed to better serve humankind. Our ability to leverage innovations to make our work easier and more productive, our leisure time more fulfilling, and our relationships more nurturing, will determine how transformative the digital transformation can be. Fulfilling that potential may come down to how transportable and mobile those technologies can be made. During the second part of TDK Ventures’ DX Week Day 5 discussion on mobility, experts from all realms of digital mobility were challenged to pinpoint how this may be accomplished and the challenges that stand in the way.

Moderator Andrew Maywah, a TDK Ventures investment director, introduced the topic by noting that “cutting-edge innovations in areas such as autonomous vehicles, electrification, wireless connectivity, drones, and shared mobility are creating opportunities to transform mobility by enabling innovative business models in addition to safer and more efficient mobility services for new and changing customer demographics.”

He then opened the discussion, calling on the entrepreneurs, researchers, and investors to drill into the issues involved. Panelists were quick to distinguish between the development paths taken by ground and aerial autonomous vehicles.

Moshe Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Ciconia Flights, said air taxis are poised to take off.

“They have been on the drawing table for several years already, and they are flying today,” he said. “Several of the traditional and new aviation companies have built air taxis. The evolution of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) in the commercial world started less than 10 years ago.”

Cohen, a former helicopter commander in the Israeli air force, said only years after logging thousands of air miles during his military service did he learn that there was no system for preventing the choppers from colliding with each other in the air.

“That’s how I came into this area and with my fellows established Ciconia,” he said. “We’ve started developing collision-avoidance systems for helicopters. We produced prototypes. The air force tested them and was very happy. While working on this, we found that the real challenge is integrating UAVs into the national airspace. In the last five or so years, a lot has been invested in air taxis. They can safely take passengers and will take off, fly, and land safely. They will safely face challenges, weather, obstacles. It is a solved problem using several kinds of sensors. They know how to fuse the sensors together, meter the engines, and build in redundancy. The only thing remaining to be solved is the integration of these vehicles into the existing air-traffic management.”

However, that is a significant challenge, he said. The world’s airports are quite well-organized. Air-traffic controllers know where every airplane is positioned at all times and pilots stick to strict routes.

“In the open airspace, on the other hand, everybody can do what they want,” Cohen said. “Look and be seen. [Safety] is the total responsibility of pilot seeing and not colliding with anybody else.”

Coordinating that traffic and determining rules for uncrewed air taxis presents the final frontier. Will they be allowed to land and take off from airports? Which vehicles will take priority? How will they communicate? Who will regulate flight paths at the lower altitudes in which autonomous flying vehicles operate?

Sensors for collision avoidance are critical for ground-based driverless vehicles to become ubiquitous, as well, panelists observed.

Linh Pham, CEO of Vin Energy Solutions and deputy CEO of VinFast, said for her company, which operates in the passenger vehicle space, “redundancy has to be very sophisticated. In our opinion, radar is very important, but it’s not sufficient. It depends on the type of experiences you want to give your customers. For example, we believe in auto-parking and believe ultrasonic technology and cameras are still very much in play, as well.”

Maha Achour, founder and CEO of Metawave Corp., agreed and is especially bullish on the application of radar as the centerpiece of a sensor matrix surrounding autonomous vehicles on the road.

“Sensors on the edge are becoming more and more demanding of computational power. That cuts the profit margins for Tier 1 sensor providers. Who takes on the liability when the sensors are divided between the edge and a centralized location? When you have a truck and all your sensors are on the engine portion, and you have these long, metallic trailers, how can the truck see behind them to make sure they are in the lane for the cut-ins and cut-outs, entering and leaving the freeway?” she asked. “Radar, unlike cameras and lidar, is the only sensor that can operated in all weather, detect objects at much longer range, and avoid multipath interference from the trailer.”

Ain McKendrick, founder and CEO of Faction, said another challenge will be deciding where investment and innovative applications can be utilized most cost effectively. For instance, he said total autonomy may not be necessary in many vehicle operations. His previous work involved running driverless tractor-trailers on public highways using radar, cameras, and other sensors. The process required human intervention “to handle the first- and last-mile operations, on-ramps, off-ramps, toll booths, for example.”

He said paying teleoperators to take control of the vehicles for that 1 percent of the time, proves significantly more financially responsible than trying to make the vehicles fully autonomous.

“If you do the math…if you had all the advanced AI technology, and it worked 100 percent of the time…the value is only about $600 per truck, per year,” he said. “Spending a billion dollars on technology and AI research to help a truck pick the right lane at a tollbooth is a complete waste of funds.”

Sensors will not be enough to keep people safe when uncrewed aerial vehicles share the skies with commercial and private aircraft, Cohen said.

“Sensors cannot solve to the level of safety that is needed because the level of detection is not high enough,” he said. “Some of the vehicles are very small; the background is noisy; and the signal-to-noise ratio is very low. Sensors and sensor fusion are important, but they will not be the solution for midair conflict.”

Instead, he said, is an extension of existing technologies that allow the aerial vehicles to transmit their locations via direct radio networks.

“This solution is working for aviation for many years already,” he said. “The reason it is not in place yet for air taxis and UAVs is not a technical one. It is more regulatory. It’s more of a political issue, because general aviation pilots don’t want to install anything on their planes. However, they cannot see a UAV, so either they will put in the radio, or the UAV will not fly, or their will be midair collisions.”

He said given good drones and air taxis would bring, it would be strong and justifiable public policy to force everything in the air to share their location via V2V.

“It is a good industry; they take loads of the roads, reduces pollution, creates good jobs. The industry should be allowed to develop to its full capacity.”

Achour disagreed. She said her company and others are working to perfect technologies that will give sensors the sensitivity to detect small drones and amplify the signal-to-noise ratio.

“V2V communication between drones, in my opinion, is impossible because of the battery consumption,” Achour said. “But sense-and-avoid and smart sensor fusion that can detect power lines during takeoff and landing, detect flocks of birds and identify them…is going to be a must.”

She said real-time fusion will be required to train systems to identify obstacles and other flying objects because “you cannot just keep flying around and hoping you can capture all the data you need.”

Florian Holzapfel, professor in the Department of Aerospace and Geodesy and director of the Institute of Flight System Dynamics at Munich’s Technische Universität, cast his vote for V2V but questioned how to arrive at a global standard.

“Whenever you come up with the technical solution, how in free societies do you get to an agreement everybody is willing to adopt,” he explained.

TDK presented DX Week to generate precisely the kind of provocative thinking and lively discussion the panelists delivered. The objective in designing this event was to inspire a new generation of inventors, researchers and entrepreneurs who will expedite the world’s digital transformation and develop uses for sustaining the environment, making humans more productive, and creating a more just society.

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