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Ben Jones, Aerospace Collaboration Manager at the University of Southampton, explains that researchers at the University are working on some of the UK’s most exciting and cutting edge aerospace and autonomous technologies, which will deliver the next generation of advanced systems in aviation

Science Minister David Willetts spoke at a major event earlier in 2014 showcasing the work at the University, sponsored by the Farnborough Aerospace Consortium (FAC) and the Aerospace, Aviation and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network (AAD KTN). It included live demonstrations of the latest autonomous and intelligent systems such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and underwater devices to help in the surveillance, maintenance and management of our society and infrastructure.

Professor Mark Spearing, Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) says: “Autonomous and intelligent systems are a key technology for the future of aerospace and a range of industries. We have combined our technical excellence with our enterprising nature to form an Aerospace University Industry Sector Team to play our part in global aerospace innovation and reinforce Southampton’s position as a vital aerospace network hub.”

Autonomous and intelligent systems aren’t just new technology; they are the next generation of smarter, safer and more environmentally friendly transportation systems.

The University’s major projects in autonomous systems range from design principles and optimisation through hardware, software system integration and project management. It is difficult for a single academic department to cover all the expertise that can directly influence innovation and quality of research. Southampton inspires collaboration between life scientists, cybernetists, space scientists, electronic engineers, computer scientists, control scientists, ship scientists, oceanographers and engineers who develop deployable systems.

The European Union is funding one of Southampton’s most innovative projects to develop high reliability UAVs for civil and maritime surveillance. The unmanned 2Seas aircraft, which incorporates sophisticated 3D printed components, can fly for over five hours at almost 100 miles an hour. It is designed to patrol the Channel and North Sea to track down hazards such as pollution, risks to shipping and illegal fishing activities.

Another UAV developed at the University is the HALO tri-rotor UAV, which has great potential in terms of the civilian market for applications such as forest fire detection, environmental monitoring, sporting event filming, pipeline inspections, crime scene investigation and many more. 

Southampton researchers are also at the forefront of a new science that is finding ways in which computers can work intelligently in partnership with people. The £10m ORCHID project is looking at how people and computers can most effectively exchange information and work together. Instead of issuing instructions to passive machines, we will increasingly work in partnership with agents, highly interconnected computational components that are able to act autonomously and intelligently. 

Picture a future emergency situation such as an earthquake, where a human rescuer on the ground is working with a group of UAVs monitoring the situation from above. The human rescuer might need to know what a building looks like from all angles, in order to decide whether it is safe to enter, and so needs one of the UAVs to take some imagery of that area and send it via a mobile phone.

However, if there are multiple UAVs with different capabilities already working on other tasks with different priorities, which one should take the picture? ORCHID’s vision is that the agents programmed into the UAVs and other sensors at the scene, could decide this autonomously by negotiating, both with other agents and with people, to achieve the best outcome quickly.

The University will continue to explore commercial and research opportunities to deliver the next generation of aerospace, marine, civil and other advanced systems technology to keep the UK at the forefront of these important industries. 


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