UK RAF trials self driving bots on Airbase

  • September 27, 2021
  • William Payne

The British Royal Air Force is trialling self driving cars on one of its air bases. The Kar-go Delivery Bot is making deliveries of tools, equipment and supplies around the RAF’s Brize Norton airbase in Oxfordshire.

Part-funded by the RAF’s Astra programme, with British start-up Academy of Robotics matching the investment, the trial is the first stage of understanding and investigating the potential to use autonomous delivery vehicles to support the work of RAF personnel.

During the trial, the vehicles will perform autonomous and semi-autonomous procedures with a safety team monitoring from a mobile command hub, which allows the team to oversee the vehicles’ operations, and take over control remotely if necessary.

Whilst extensive pre-scanning and data capture is typical to train autonomous vehicles on a particular route to teach it how to perceive the different features of that route, due to security constraints, the team have had to invent a proprietary system to minimise data capture and enable the vehicle to navigate safely without this training. Furthermore, the team have 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.

The trial is the first deployment of self driving vehicles on any RAF airbase.

The RAF’s Astra programme aims to identify barriers to change and develop innovative approaches and technologies to improve RAF working processes.

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. Our recruits receive world-class training. If new technology can help to ensure we are enabling them to use that training as effectively as possible, we need to look at how we can integrate it into our current processes. However, we must ensure we introduce this in a way that is secure and safe for our personnel. We see this trial as our first steps into understanding how we can deliver this vision safely.”

Group Captain Emily Flynn, Station Commander at RAF Brize Norton said: “This trial is part of a continued programme to take away the mundane tasks that cause added stress and inconvenience for our people, to help our highly-trained personnel to do the jobs they joined the RAF to do and to do them to the best of their ability.”

William Sachiti, CEO and Founder of Academy of Robotics said: “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.”