RAF trials autonomous deliveries on airbase

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The Royal Air Force is working with creator of Kar-Go delivery bot, Academy of Robotics, to trial the deployment of autonomous vehicles on an airbase.  

As part of the RAF’s Astra campaign to deliver next generation Air Force capability, the trial is the first time a self-driving vehicle has been used on a UK airbase.

The Kar-go delivery robot delivers tools, equipment and supplies to locations within RAF Brize Norton, near Oxford. RAF personnel then meet the vehicle and a hatch is automatically released enabling them to collect the goods.

During the trial, the vehicles will perform autonomous and semi-autonomous procedures with a safety team monitoring from a mobile command hub. This remote command hub is a secure mobile unit, which can oversee all aspects of the vehicles’ operations. From this facility, the team are also able to take control of the vehicle remotely if necessary.

For security reasons, only trained and authorised personnel can move goods around an airbase, but the use of secure, autonomous vehicles could offer valuable support to professional personnel, freeing up their time to focus on the core roles they were trained for.

Group Captain Emily Flynn, station commander at RAF Brize Norton in the remote command seat of the mobile command hub for Kar-go

Furthermore, as the vehicles are electric, the technology also opens up opportunities to reduce harmful emissions, helping the RAF towards its mission to achieve net zero by 2040.

Squadron leader Tony Seston, RAF engineer and Astra ambassador, said: “Bringing self-driving technology onto a base offers many advantages. Ultimately, we could see fleets of autonomous vehicles with different autonomy levels delivering supplies, spares, tools, food and also providing airfield services such as aircraft fuelling, runway sweeping and snow and ice clearance.”

While extensive pre-scanning and data capture is typical to train autonomous vehicles on a particular route, due to security constraints, the team had to create a proprietary system to minimise data capture and enable the vehicle to navigate safely without this training.

For this trial the team also had to address some new challenges unique to driving on an airfield and teach the AI to learn new behaviours like stopping at green lights on an airfield.

William Sachiti, CEO and founder of Academy of Robotics, explained: “Moving goods securely around a site is a major challenge for almost all large organisations and although we have optimised everything we do to be able to do trials like this where the technology can complement the core work taking place on large industrial sites, every site has its own nuances and challenges.

“The fact that we have designed and built every aspect of the self-driving system -from the vehicle to the software and the mobile command centre- has been a huge benefit here giving us complete control and making it much easier to adapt it to the specific integration challenges of the environment we are operating in.”

Following this first trial, the RAF will review findings and asses if and how it can be scaled effectively.

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