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Showing posts with label Transport. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Transport. Show all posts

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Engineers develop an ‘intelligent co-pilot’ for cars

July 19, 2012

Barrels and cones dot an open field in Saline, Mich., forming an obstacle course for a modified vehicle. A driver remotely steers the vehicle through the course from a nearby location as a researcher looks on. Occasionally, the researcher instructs the driver to keep the wheel straight — a trajectory that appears to put the vehicle on a collision course with a barrel. Despite the driver’s actions, the vehicle steers itself around the obstacle, transitioning control back to the driver once the danger has passed.

The key to the maneuver is a new semiautonomous safety system developed by Sterling Anderson, a PhD student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Karl Iagnemma, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Robotic Mobility Group.

The system uses an onboard camera and laser rangefinder to identify hazards in a vehicle’s environment. The team devised an algorithm to analyze the data and identify safe zones — avoiding, for example, barrels in a field, or other cars on a roadway. The system allows a driver to control the vehicle, only taking the wheel when the driver is about to exit a safe zone.

Anderson, who has been testing the system in Michigan since last September, describes it as an “intelligent co-pilot” that monitors a driver’s performance and makes behind-the-scenes adjustments to keep the vehicle from colliding with obstacles, or within a safe region of the environment, such as a lane or open area.

“The real innovation is enabling the car to share [control] with you,” Anderson says. “If you want to drive, it’ll just … make sure you don’t hit anything.”

The group presented details of the safety system recently at the Intelligent Vehicles Symposium in Spain.

Off the beaten path

Robotics research has focused in recent years on developing systems — from cars to medical equipment to industrial machinery — that can be controlled by either robots or humans. For the most part, such systems operate along preprogrammed paths.

As an example, Anderson points to the technology behind self-parking cars. To parallel park, a driver engages the technology by flipping a switch and taking his hands off the wheel. The car then parks itself, following a preplanned path based on the distance between neighboring cars.

While a planned path may work well in a parking situation, Anderson says when it comes to driving, one or even multiple paths is far too limiting.

“The problem is, humans don’t think that way,” Anderson says. “When you and I drive, [we don’t] choose just one path and obsessively follow it. Typically you and I see a lane or a parking lot, and we say, ‘Here is the field of safe travel, here’s the entire region of the roadway I can use, and I’m not going to worry about remaining on a specific line, as long as I’m safely on the roadway and I avoid collisions.’”

Anderson and Iagnemma integrated this human perspective into their robotic system. The team came up with an approach to identify safe zones, or “homotopies,” rather than specific paths of travel. Instead of mapping out individual paths along a roadway, the researchers divided a vehicle’s environment into triangles, with certain triangle edges representing an obstacle or a lane’s boundary.

The researchers devised an algorithm that “constrains” obstacle-abutting edges, allowing a driver to navigate across any triangle edge except those that are constrained. If a driver is in danger of crossing a constrained edge — for instance, if he’s fallen asleep at the wheel and is about to run into a barrier or obstacle — the system takes over, steering the car back into the safe zone.

Building trust

So far, the team has run more than 1,200 trials of the system, with few collisions; most of these occurred when glitches in the vehicle’s camera failed to identify an obstacle. For the most part, the system has successfully helped drivers avoid collisions.

Benjamin Saltsman, manager of intelligent truck vehicle technology and innovation at Eaton Corp., says the system has several advantages over fully autonomous variants such as the self-driving cars developed by Google and Ford. Such systems, he says, are loaded with expensive sensors, and require vast amounts of computation to plan out safe routes.

"The implications of [Anderson's] system is it makes it lighter in terms of sensors and computational requirements than what a fully autonomous vehicle would require," says Saltsman, who was not involved in the research. "This simplification makes it a lot less costly, and closer in terms of potential implementation."

In experiments, Anderson has also observed an interesting human response: Those who trust the system tend to perform better than those who don’t. For instance, when asked to hold the wheel straight, even in the face of a possible collision, drivers who trusted the system drove through the course more quickly and confidently than those who were wary of the system.

And what would the system feel like for someone who is unaware that it’s activated? “You would likely just think you’re a talented driver,” Anderson says. “You’d say, ‘Hey, I pulled this off,’ and you wouldn’t know that the car is changing things behind the scenes to make sure the vehicle remains safe, even if your inputs are not.”

He acknowledges that this isn’t necessarily a good thing, particularly for people just learning to drive; beginners may end up thinking they are better drivers than they actually are. Without negative feedback, these drivers can actually become less skilled and more dependent on assistance over time. On the other hand, Anderson says expert drivers may feel hemmed in by the safety system. He and Iagnemma are now exploring ways to tailor the system to various levels of driving experience.

The team is also hoping to pare down the system to identify obstacles using a single cellphone. “You could stick your cellphone on the dashboard, and it would use the camera, accelerometers and gyro to provide the feedback needed by the system,” Anderson says. “I think we’ll find better ways of doing it that will be simpler, cheaper and allow more users access to the technology.”

This research was supported by the United States Army Research Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The experimental platform was developed in collaboration with Quantum Signal LLC with assistance from James Walker, Steven Peters and Sisir Karumanchi.

Source: MIT News

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Smart Headlight System Will Have Drivers Seeing Through the Rain: Shining Light Between Drops Makes Thunderstorm Seem Like a Drizzle

July 10, 2012

Drivers can struggle to see when driving at night in a rainstorm or snowstorm, but a smart headlight system invented by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute can improve visibility by constantly redirecting light to shine between particles of precipitation.

The system, demonstrated in laboratory tests, prevents the distracting and sometimes dangerous glare that occurs when headlight beams are reflected by precipitation back toward the driver.

"If you're driving in a thunderstorm, the smart headlights will make it seem like it's a drizzle," said Srinivasa Narasimhan, associate professor of robotics.

The system uses a camera to track the motion of raindrops and snowflakes and then applies a computer algorithm to predict where those particles will be just a few milliseconds later. The light projection system then adjusts to deactivate light beams that would otherwise illuminate the particles in their predicted positions.

"A human eye will not be able to see that flicker of the headlights," Narasimhan said. "And because the precipitation particles aren't being illuminated, the driver won't see the rain or snow either."

To people, rain can appear as elongated streaks that seem to fill the air. To high-speed cameras, however, rain consists of sparsely spaced, discrete drops. That leaves plenty of space between the drops where light can be effectively distributed if the system can respond rapidly, Narasimhan said.

In their lab tests, Narasimhan and his research team demonstrated that their system could detect raindrops, predict their movement and adjust a light projector accordingly in 13 milliseconds. At low speeds, such a system could eliminate 70 to 80 percent of visible rain during a heavy storm, while losing only 5 or 6 percent of the light from the headlamp.

To operate at highway speeds and to work effectively in snow and hail, the system's response will need to be reduced to just a few milliseconds, Narasimhan said. The lab tests have demonstrated the feasibility of the system, however, and the researchers are confident that the speed of the system can be boosted.

The test apparatus, for instance, couples a camera with an off-the-shelf DLP projector. Road-worthy systems likely would be based on arrays of light-emitting diode (LED) light sources in which individual elements could be turned on or off, depending on the location of raindrops. New LED technology could make it possible to combine LED light sources with image sensors on a single chip, enabling high-speed operation at low cost.

Narasimhan's team is now engineering a more compact version of the smart headlight that in coming years could be installed in a car for road testing.

Though a smart headlight system will never be able to eliminate all precipitation from the driver's field of view, simply reducing the amount of reflection and distortion caused by precipitation can substantially improve visibility and reduce driver distraction. Another benefit is that the system also can detect oncoming cars and direct the headlight beams away from the eyes of those drivers, eliminating the need to shift from high to low beams.

"One good thing is that the system will not fail in a catastrophic way," Narasimhan said. "If it fails, it is just a normal headlight."

This research was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology and Intel Corp. Collaborators include Takeo Kanade, professor of computer science and robotics; Anthony Rowe, assistant research professor of electrical and computer engineering; Robert Tamburo, Robotics Institute project scientist; Peter Barnum, a former robotics Ph.D. student now with Texas Instruments; and Raoul de Charette, a visiting Ph.D. student from Mines ParisTech, France.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Improving safety and reliability: Laser scan at full speed

May 8, 2012

Dr. Heinrich Höfler and Dipl.-Ing. Harald Wölfelschneider (from left to right) with a 3D laser scanner that improves safety and reliability on railroad tracks all over the world. © Dirk Mahler / Fraunhofer

Is a contact wire missing or is it faulty? What's the situation in front of the entrance to a railway station or a tunnel? A 3D laser scanner can increase the train‘s safety and reliability.

Laser systems can be used to implement highly precise and ultra-fast measuring processes. Railway measuring technology has a huge worldwide need here. One prerequisite for its use is that nobody is damaged or suffers irritations by the laser. Dr. Heinrich Höfler and Dipl.-Ing. Harald Wölfelschneider from the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques IPM in Freiburg have worked with their team to develop a 3D laser scanner. It can be used outdoors without hesitation. Extremely fast and precise, it is able to spatially measure and monitor the position of the contact wire or the track from a train travelling at up to 100 kilometers (62 mph) per hour. If the scanner is stationary, it can capture passing trains and check for loads that might have slipped.

Heinrich Höfler explains how that works: “We send off a laser beam and wait until it returns. We measure the time in between and that tells us how far away an object is.” The difficult part is capturing the returning beam. Often, only very little light comes back and what‘s more, the transmitted light beam is back in an extremely short space of time. The solution: A kind of slow motion. The laser beam is very rapidly switched on and off – modulated, as scientists would put it. The time shift of this modulation wave can be determined more quickly and precisely than is possible with a single laser pulse.

Capturing obstacles and constrictions during movement

The system measures, by default, one million times per second. “For Deutsche Bundesbahn (German Railway), we equipped a measurement train that scans the surroundings of the test track, using several laser beams and which delivers, taking four million measurements per second, a 3D image of what it scans”, explains Harald Wölfelschneider. That allows even small obstacles and constrictions to be detected, or we can plan the route via which a heavy load can best be transported to its destination.

Another field of application is the measuring of passing trains. This requires the scanner to be permanently mounted, which, however, does increase the chance of someone looking into the laser beam for a longer period. To make the scanner safe for the human eye, the researchers had to develop a new wavelength range: infrared, which is harmless for our eyes. The consequence being that the entire system had to be fully reconfigured.

From railway to road – in global use

If we examine railways carefully, it makes sense that we then also examine other traffic routes, such as roads. The team at IPM has developed a 3D scanner, safe for the human eye, which is mounted onto a moving car and which scans the road from a height of about three meters. “We can now detect height differences of even 0.2 millimeters on the road, even at speeds of 80 kilometers per hour (approx. 50 mph)“, says Höfler. This is the first scanner approved for this purpose by the Federal Highway Research Institute. It is to detect lane grooves, potholes and water drainage potentials.

The laser system has already been marketed and used successfully all over the world for rail traffic safety. Not only fast and precise, this system is also highly robust. Dr. Heinrich Höfler and Dipl.-Ing. Harald Wölfelschneider will receive one of the 2012 Joseph-von-Fraunhofer awards for this eye-safe 3D laser scanner.

Source: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

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Friday, 4 May 2012

Researchers Using Nanoclays to Build Better Asphalt

May 4, 2012

Ruts like these pose a serious threat to motorists. Zhanping You and his team have discovered that adding nanoclay to the asphalt pavement mix may help roads resist rutting. Credit MTU

Long before freeways and parking lots, a naturally occurring asphalt first appeared on roads in about 600 B.C. You can still see patches of it in the ancient city of Babylon.

Under the onslaught of 21st century traffic, modern asphalt isn’t likely to hold up for anywhere near 2,700 years. But at Michigan Technological University, Zhanping You is paving the way for brand-new asphalt blends to fight off cracks, rutting and potholes.

His work has drawn so much attention that one of his papers made SciVerse ScienceDirect’s Top 25 Hottest Articles of 2011 for the journal Construction and Building Materials.

Nanoclay-Modified Asphalt Materials: Preparation and Characterization” reviews recent literature on asphalt that has been doctored with nanomaterials. It also presents new discoveries from You’s team suggesting that adding nanoclays to asphalt materials could make for safer, longer-lasting roadways.

“Asphalt is now made from petroleum, so it’s very expensive,” said You, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “As a result, a lot of people are looking at ways to make it more durable.”

Heat, cold and stress in the form of traffic take their toll on asphalt pavement, made from a mix of asphalt and aggregates like gravel. That leads to cracks, potholes and a process called rutting. Ruts are most likely to form on busy roads, sections with slow traffic, and areas with stop signs and stoplights, where the rubber hits the road hard thousands of times a day.

“Rutting can be very dangerous, especially in snow and ice,” You said. “If we could use advanced materials to reduce rutting, that would be very beneficial to the public.”

You’s team tested two types of nanoclays, adding 2–4 percent by weight to the asphalt. That’s a smidgeon--less than half of a percent of the total weight of the asphalt pavement itself. But it made a big difference.

“It improved the viscosity significantly,” You said. “That means it will provide better stiffness, which means that it won’t deform as much in hot weather or under heavy traffic.”

They don’t yet know if nanoclay can help asphalt resist cracking in cold weather or under heavy loads, since their testing isn’t completed. “But it is always our goal to develop new asphalt mixtures with those qualities,” You said.

His lab is also testing how other nanomaterials, including nano-silica and nano-composites, will affect asphalt durability.

Source: Michigan Technological University

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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Electric mass mobility for urban environments

May 2, 2012

MUTE serves as test carrier for the Visio.M-Project - Photo: Florian Lehmann / TUM

Electric vehicles powered by electricity from renewable energy sources are an attractive option for mobility within the urban area and beyond. However, previous approaches lead to vehicles that either are too heavy and too expensive or do not meet mass-market safety requirements. Within the joint research project Visio.M scientists at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM), in cooperation with engineers from the automotive industry, will develop concepts to produce electric cars that are efficient, safe, and inexpensive. Lead manager of the project is BMW AG. The project has a total volume of 10.8 million euros and is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF).

Electric cars are silent and cause no emissions where they go. Therefore, they are considered an important option for future individual mobility in urban areas and beyond. But on the way to mass production of electric vehicles, there are still significant technological hurdles to overcome. Previous small electric vehicles offer only a minimum level of vehicle safety and therefore are not mass-marketable. Electric cars that were derived from gasoline-powered models are usually too heavy and require large and expensive batteries.

Within the joint research project Visio.M well known companies of the German automotive industry, together with scientists from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen, explore how the price and safety of small, efficient electric vehicles can be brought to a level enabling them to achieve a significant share of the mass market. The mobility concept deriving from these visionaries will be a vehicle with a power of 15 kilowatts and a maximum curb weight of 400 kg (without battery), meeting the requirements of the European regulatory category L7e.

The consortium partners use the electric vehicle prototype MUTE developed by the TU Muenchen as their test carrier to explore innovations and new technologies for vehicle safety, propulsion, energy storage, and operational concepts for implementation under the framework requirements of large-scale production. Special attention is given to safety-related design issues. Despite minimal weight, Visio.M is expected to achieve a level of protection equal to that offered by conventional cars with combustion engines.

Participants in the Visio.M consortium are, in addition to the automotive companies BMW AG (lead manager) and Daimler AG, the Technische Universitaet Muenchen as a scientific partner, and Autoliv BV & Co. KG, the Federal Highway Research Institute (BAST), Continental Automotive GmbH, E.ON AG, Finepower GmbH, Hyve AG, IAV GmbH, InnoZ GmbH, Intermap Technologies GmbH, LION Smart GmbH, Neumayer Tekfor Holding GmbH, Siemens AG, Texas Instruments Germany GmbH and TÜV SÜD AG as industrial partners. The project is funded under the priority program "Key Technologies for Electric Mobility - STROM" of the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF).

Source: Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM)

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Company to begin testing electric airplane this spring

May 1, 2012

A new aircraft could run entirely on electricity, Popular Science reports.

Researchers at Volta Volare have worked over the past few years to use the latest in engineering research as they sought to create an airplane that could operate using only electricity. Achieving such would have far-reaching repercussions within the aviation sector, as volatile fuel prices are the single most significant contributor to high ticket prices, and the company's newest model could help usher in a new era in flight, the firm's executives contend.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Volta Volare is a leader in its efforts to use novel engineering tools to help make electric and hybrid flight a reality. Paul Peterson, the company's chief executive, said recently that advances in electric vehicle batteries and motors have bolstered the firm's research initiatives. Peterson reckons that electric planes could become as ubiquitous as conventional ones, although the emergent field faces many hurdles on its quest.

This spring, Volta Volare will begin testing an electric aircraft prototype, a G4 that seats four passengers, according to the news provider. Company engineers modeled the plane in many ways on electric vehicle designs, Peterson noted. The G4's hybrid powertrain, for instance, is similar to that of the Chevrolet Volt, and is equipped with batteries and backup gasoline engine components.

The potential payoff for the company is massive, especially as jet fuel prices remain at record highs. Completing a 200-mile journey with an electric aircraft that is equipped with a single engine would cost roughly one-fourth of the amount the same trip would take with a plane that operates using fossil fuels. What's more, electric planes would require less maintenance than their gas-powered counterparts because their motors have only one moving part, Peterson noted.

Electric planes would also reduce aircraft emissions and would produce a quantifiable drop in carbon emissions released by the aviation sector each year, scientists note. While such aircraft are promising, safety experts have long questioned whether they are viable. An electric plane running out of battery power is far more serious than if the same scenario occurs in an electric vehicle.

Still, Peterson said engineers have worked to address many of the safety and structural issues that have long thwarted the development of electric aircraft. Volta Volare's electric plane prototype features a canard, which is a short cross-wing installed near the aircraft's nose and propeller. The canard helps propel the plane through the air, according to PopSci.

Additionally, the canard served as yet another area where engineers could install battery packs. The plane's propellers are also made from a carbon-composite material that is significantly lighter than the materials used in conventional aircraft. Using carbon-composite in the design of the electric plane also ensured the plane was secure enough to contend with the rigors of flight.

The plane is also outfitted with a 900-pound lithium-polymer battery system, according to the company. There are 236 individual cells that make up the battery pack. Each of the batteries is approximately equivalent to the same of a notebook computer, and the pack as a whole is capable of generating 600 horsepower at peak output. Throughout the course of a flight, it roughly has an output of 400 horsepower, Peterson affirmed.

Source: Knovel

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Friday, 27 April 2012

Panasonic Advances Automotive Millimeter-Wave Radar Technology to Detect Pedestrians and Vehicles in Low Visibility Conditions

April 27, 2012

Panasonic Corporation today announced it has developed an advanced radar technology for next-generation traffic safety systems that enables to detect humans and vehicles in a range of several tens of meters. This millimeter-wave radar technology allows for detecting objects outdoors in poor visibility conditions, such as night, rain and snow, as well as against the sunlight. When applied in traffic surveillance sensors located at intersections, this innovative technology will help increase automotive safety by detecting pedestrians and bicycles hidden in the driver's blind spots.

As accidents at intersections account for about a half of all traffic fatalities, preventive measures are required to avoid collisions there involving cars, pedestrians and cyclists. Panasonic's new radar technology enables traffic monitoring sensors at intersections to detect pedestrians and bicycles up to 40 meters ahead even at nighttime and under bad weather conditions that hinder the driver's visibility. By alerting the driver of the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk or bicycles in blind spots, this technology helps to reduce the driver's burden and traffic accidents.

Panasonic's new automotive radar technology has overcome the difficulties with conventional millimeter-wave radar technologies; the advanced radar technology is capable of detecting humans and cars simultaneously in spite of the fact that human body reflects extremely weak radar signals compared with car body. This innovative radar technology has also achieved high detection performance with a range resolution of less than 50cm and an angular resolution of 5 degrees, which enables to detect pedestrians and vehicles. Furthermore, unlike optical and infrared cameras and laser sensors, whose detection performance can be significantly affected by visibility conditions, this new radar technology will not be subject to such conditions as nighttime, rain, snow or dense fog.

Panasonic has developed and incorporated the following new element technologies to realize the new millimeter-wave radar technology for automotive applications:

  1. Coded pulse modulation technique that employs a newly designed code sequence for pulse radar method to improve sensitivity characteristics, thereby achieving extension of the detection range and finding out small objects that have weak radar reflection. 
  2. Adaptive antenna technique that combines radar beamforming transmission and adaptive array antenna reception with signal processing algorism for estimation of target direction, thereby achieving high angle resolution even with a smaller antenna compared with conventional one.

With regard to millimeter-wave radars, there presently exist radars for vehicle to measure distance to the vehicle in front. However, these radars cannot detect human body with high resolution due to very weak radar reflection of human body. In addition, an optical camera is commonly used as a traffic surveillance sensor. However, it cannot work well under certain conditions such as nighttime because it can provide almost the same information as the human eye can capture.

Panasonic has achieved the new radar technology as part of the "Research and Development Project for Expansion of Radio Spectrum Resources" supported by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications of Japan. The company will demonstrate the technology at VTC (Vehicular Technology Conference) 2012-Spring (May 7 to 9 in Yokohama, Japan), using a test equipment with an experimental radio license.

On the new radar technology, Panasonic holds eighteen patents in Japan and six patents overseas including pending applications.

Source:  Market Watch

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Automotive technology: Keeping older drivers on the road

April 25, 2012

Credit: Newcastle University
A unique research car which monitors our concentration, stress levels and driving habits while we’re sat behind the steering wheel is being used to develop new technologies to support older drivers.

The Intelligent Transport team at Newcastle University have converted an electric car into a mobile laboratory.

Dubbed ‘DriveLAB’, the car is kitted out with tracking systems, eye trackers and bio-monitors in an effort to understand the challenges faced by older drivers and to identify where the key stress points are.

Research shows that giving up driving is one of the key factors responsible for a fall in health and well-being among older people, leading to them becoming more isolated and inactive.

Led by Professor Phil Blythe, the Newcastle team are investigating in-vehicle technologies for older drivers which they hope could help them to continue driving into later life.

These include bespoke navigation tools, night vision systems and intelligent speed adaptations.
Phil Blythe, Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems at Newcastle University, explains: “For many older people, particularly those living alone or in rural areas, driving is essential for maintaining their independence, giving them the freedom to get out and about without having to rely on others.

“But we all have to accept that as we get older our reactions slow down and this often results in people avoiding any potentially challenging driving conditions and losing confidence in their driving skills. The result is that people stop driving before they really need to.

“What we are doing is to look at ways of keeping people driving safely for longer, which in turn boosts independence and keeps us socially connected.”

Funded by Research Councils UK’s Digital Economy programme the research is part of the Social inclusion through the Digital Economy (SiDE) project, a £12m research hub led by Newcastle University.

Using the new DriveLAB as well as the University’s driving simulator, the team have been working with older people from across the North East and Scotland to understand their driving habits and fears and look at ways of overcoming them.

By incorporating the eye tracker and bio-monitor with the driving simulator the team are able to monitor eye movement, speed, reaction, lane position, acceleration, braking and driving efficiency.

Dr Amy Guo, the leading researcher on the older driver study, explains: “The DriveLAB is helping us to understand what the key stress triggers and difficulties are for older drivers and how we might use technology to address these problems.

“For example, most of us would expect older drivers always go slower than everyone else but surprisingly, we found that in 30mph zones they struggled to keep at a constant speed and so were more likely to break the speed limit and be at risk of getting fined.

“We’re looking at the benefits of systems which control your speed as a way of preventing that.”
Another solution is a tailored SatNav which uses pictures as turning cues, such as a post box or public house.

Researcher Chris Emmerson, explains: “One thing that came out of the focus groups was that while the older generation is often keen to try new technologies it’s their lack of experience with, and confidence in, digital technologies which puts them off. Also, they felt most were designed with younger people in mind.”

The work is being presented at the Aging, Mobility and Quality of Life conference in Michigan in June.
Edmund King, AA president and Visiting Professor of Transport at Newcastle University, said: “The car is a life-line for many older people as it helps keep them mobile, independent and connected to friends and family. The AA Charitable Trust has helped thousands of older drivers with our free “Drive Confident” courses but we feel that the pioneering work of DriveLAB will help with technological solutions to ensure that older drivers stay safer behind the wheel.”

The driving simulator is also being used to look at how distractions such as answering a mobile phone, sending a text or eating can affect our driving.

Source:  Newcastle University

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Engineering a safer world: Workshop explores safety in nuclear power plants, occupational health, aviation and medicine

April 23, 2012
Credit: MIT

Innovations in software and technology are creating increasingly complex systems: cars that park themselves; medical devices that automatically deliver drugs; and smartphones with the computing power of desktop computers, to name a few. Such complex systems allow us to do things that seemed difficult or impossible just a few years ago.

But Nancy Leveson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, says increasing complexity is also making systems more vulnerable to accidents. What’s more, she says traditional safety engineering approaches are not very effective in keeping new and fast-evolving systems safe. For example, engineers typically evaluate the safety of a system by checking the performance of each of its components. Leveson argues that safety — particularly in complex systems — depends on more than a system’s individual parts.

For the past decade, Leveson has been championing a new, more holistic approach to safety engineering. In addition to analyzing systems’ technical components, her approach — dubbed STAMP, for System-Theoretic Accident Model and Processes — addresses the impacts of human, social, economic and governmental factors on safety.

Last week, Leveson hosted a three-day workshop at which more than 250 safety engineering professionals from around the world gathered to learn about STAMP and to explore the event’s theme, “Engineering a Safer World.” The event also coincided with the publication of Leveson's new book on the topic, titled Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety.

The workshop drew participants from industries including aviation and automotive engineering, occupational health, missile defense, road tunnel safety, and medicine, some of whom gave presentations during the workshop.

In many cases, safety analyses are performed only after an accident has occurred. Several researchers at the workshop presented cases in which they used Leveson’s approach to identify causes of accidents.
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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Diesel Technologies Drastically Cut Emissions in Real-World Conditions

April 17, 2012

Diesel truck with sampling equipment attached. Credit: NCSU

New research from North Carolina State University shows that federal requirements governing diesel engines of new tractor trailer trucks have resulted in major cuts in emissions of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) – pollutants that have significant human health and environmental impacts.

“These requirements for new emission control technologies have increased costs for truck owners and operators, and we wanted to know whether there was any real benefit,” says Dr. Chris Frey, professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research. “We found that there is a huge reduction in both PM and NOx emissions.”

Frey and Ph.D. student Gurdas Sandhu used a portable emissions measurement system to sample exhaust from diesel trucks while the trucks were in use on roads and highways. The emission requirements apply to new trucks, meaning that trucks purchased in 2010 and trucks purchased in 1999 were subject to different emission requirements.

Frey and Sandhu found that a truck in compliance with 1999 standards emitted 110 grams of NOx per gallon of fuel used, and 0.22 grams of PM per gallon of fuel used. NOx is a significant contributor to low-level ozone, which adversely impacts respiratory health. PM also adversely impacts respiratory health and, because it is largely made up of black carbon, also contributes to global climate change.

Trucks in compliance with newer standards had far lower emissions. For example, a 2010 truck emitted 2 grams of NOx per gallon of fuel – a decrease of 98 percent. The PM emissions were 95 percent lower.

The NOx reductions stem from the implementation of exhaust gas recirculation and selective catalytic reduction technologies. The PM reductions are the result of installing diesel particulate filters into the tail pipes of diesel trucks.

“While these technologies are a significant investment for truck owners, this study shows that they are achieving a remarkable drop in emissions of contaminants that have meaningful health and environmental consequences,” Frey says.

The paper, “Real-World Measurement and Evaluation of Heavy Duty Truck Duty Cycles, Fuels, and Emission Control Technologies,” is forthcoming from Transportation Research Record, the journal of the Transportation Research Board (TRB). Sandhu is lead author of the paper. The research was supported by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the National Science Foundation.

Source: North Carolina State University (NCSU)

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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

IBM and ZSE Create Virtual Green Highway for Electric Vehicles

April 11, 2012

Credit: IBM

IBM announced it has teamed with Západoslovenská energetika(ZSE), the largest distributor and supplier of electricity in Slovakia, on a smart energy “feasibility” study that will help prepare the capital city Bratislava for electric vehicles (EVs).

Using e-mobility technology, the study will help identify the possibilities of connecting two neighboring metropolitan areas – Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria with a "green" highway. This highway will interconnect the two cities with a network of public charging stations for electric vehicles.

This study is part of a larger pilot project - VIBRATe' (VIenna BRATislava E-mobility), a first of its kind in Central Europe, with a goal to reduce emissions with a smarter, energy efficient transportation system. Currently, the average combustion engine produces about 45 kg of CO2 per year during the route from Vienna to Bratislava.

"The aim of the feasibility study is to identify new opportunities around e-mobility in Bratislava and maximize the market potential, in an effort to reduce emissions," said ZSE. "By analyzing the capacity needed from the distribution network for various types of vehicle charging / recharging, Bratislava can not only implement an optimal power grid, but also address the charging concerns shared by its citizens."

IBM Slovakia is teaming with ZSE to provide insights into various implementation scenarios and infrastructure options for charging. Together, the companies are investigating charging station locations for normal and rapid charging across the borders, as well as analyzing networking availability. This insight will allow ZSE to strategically place charging stations in areas that are convenient for consumers, without straining the distribution system, an issue caused by unpredictable charging across territories.

"Rising fuel prices and energy consumption are two major issues facing many cities around the world, these factors coupled with aging roads and infrastructures, can affect city planning, local economy, and overall community satisfaction," said Guido Bartels, General Manager of IBM's Global Energy and Utilities Industry. "This mobility project with ZSE tackles all of these issues. It has the potential to introduce a modern, convenient and more intelligent way for consumers to commute, which in turn may encourage more to make the shift to an electric vehicle, while reducing stress on the energy grid."

ZSE is spearheading this project to identify alternative energy resources, drive consumer engagement and ensure the reliable distribution of electricity. Once implemented, the solution will help consumers save energy and control usage costs, while helping utilities manage power load on the energy grid during peak charging times with better insight into consumption. Additionally, energy suppliers will have the ability to store energy for use when natural sources of energy are not available.

This e-mobility study along with other projects such as Edison, EcoGrid EU and EKZ in Switzerland, demonstrates the ongoing commitment towards developing a reliable energy and transport infrastructure that supports the adoption of electric vehicles.

Source: IBM

Friday, 23 March 2012

Space Travel on Earth: New York to Beijing in two hours without leaving the ground?

March 23, 2012

An ETT (Evacuated Tube Transport) line in which car-sized passenger/cargo capsules would travel.  Credit: ET3

Although there are similarities to the Startram concept we looked at recently, this take on maglev-like transport is all on terra firma and, if it ever eventuates, would take passengers from New York to Beijing in just two hours. Advocates of Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) claim it is silent, cheaper than planes, trains or cars and faster than jets.

The basic plan is, well, as old as the enabling patent, US Patent 5950543, whose description is quite thorough. Issued in 1999, there remain seven years on the term of the patent, which is assigned to, Inc., a licensing organization that hopes to head an alliance of players to fund and construct demonstration facilities.

The short version of the ETT story is as follows: put a superconducting maglev train in evacuated tubes, then accelerate using linear electric motors until the design velocity is attained. As the motors are integrated into the evacuated tubes, the conveyance capsules which travel in the tube need have no moving or electrically activated parts - passive superconductors allow the capsules to float in the tube, while eddy currents induced in conducting materials drive the capsules. Efficiency of such a system would be high, as the electric energy required to accelerate a capsule could largely be recaptured as it slows.

The most practical model system is based on car-sized passenger/cargo capsules that travel in 1.5 m (5 ft) diameter vacuum maglev tubes. The maglev tubes are permanently maintained at near vacuum conditions, and the capsules are inserted into and removed from the tubes through airlocks at stations along the route. After the capsules are accelerated to the design velocity (some 5,400 km/h (4,000 mph)), they coast for the remainder of the trip. There is no drag from traveling through air, and although small oscillations in the maglev suspension do cause a bit of inefficiency, it is a tiny fraction of the rather immense kinetic energy of an occupied capsule - which with a car of about 550 kg (1,212.5 lb) traveling at 5,400 km/h is just about 2,200 kWh.

The capsule speed will depend on the length of the trip, as it takes time to accelerate. Given a nominal acceleration of 1 g, it takes about 2.5 minutes to reach 5,400 km/s, at which point the capsule has traveled over 100 km (62 miles)., Inc. believes that a reasonable speed for shorter trips is 600 km/h (370 mph). While tubes could be networked like freeways, with capsules automatically routed along their trip, local and long-distance trips would require separate maglev tubes to avoid unreasonable scheduling delays. Around the world in just over six hours isn't orbital velocity, but the practical benefits would be nearly the same - vital goods and talent delivered quickly to where they are needed.

Members of the ET3 consortium have worked with parties in China, where they say more than a dozen licenses for the company have been sold. As an open consortium, licensees become owners of the company and the group claims more than 60 licenses have also been sold in five different countries, with interest from several more. But with licenses selling through the ET3 website for US$100, a lot more people will need to get on board to turn the dreams of those behind the concept into a reality. The company is developing a 3D Virtual Ride for the system with those interested in hitching a ride able to submit their contact details here. Unfortunately, the prelaunch for the virtual ride was set for last year and it still hasn't eventuated.

Promising concept or pipe dream? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

Source: Gizmag

Additional Information:

Engineers Use Advanced Technology to Achieve More Precise Manufacturing

March 23, 2012

The development of the Kenworth T680 represents a leap forward in building world class, quality trucks. Early in the design process, engineers involved manufacturing personnel to develop standardized manufacturing processes, which led to improved efficiency and easier assembly. (Photo: Business Wire)

With the launch of the new Kenworth T680, Kenworth further enhances its already strong focus on producing quality trucks supported by the innovative use of technology to increase efficiency and achieve even more precise manufacturing.

“Our manufacturing process for the Kenworth T680 represents a leap forward in building world class, quality trucks,” said Scott Blue, plant manager at the Chillicothe, Ohio-based Kenworth assembly plant, which is a production facility for the aerodynamic T680. “Involving manufacturing personnel in the T680 design process enabled Kenworth to deliver a new truck that takes into consideration, within the assembly process, all of the little things that make the T680 so unique. And by leveraging advanced technology, we’ve been able to greatly enhance the T680’s quality while further enhancing the efficiency of our manufacturing process.”

The new Kenworth T680 door is one example of how Kenworth design and manufacturing engineers achieved a new level of manufacturing precision and quality. “We wanted a world class door that was larger, more robust and easier to assemble,” said Robert Culwell, Kenworth’s division manufacturing engineering manager in Kirkland, Wash. “Our engineers utilized advanced three-dimensional computer imaging to design a door frame and door that closes tightly with a degree of consistency and high precision.”

The T680’s stamped aluminum door is 30 percent larger, yet lightweight and extremely stiff, making for excellent seal integrity. A pressure relief valve equalizes interior and exterior air pressure to make the door easy to open and close with little effort. Once the door is closed, the T680’s triple seal design minimizes sound transmission. “All the contours and the shape match perfectly,” Culwell said. “A tight-fitting cab creates a quieter, more comfortable work environment for drivers.”

Manufacturing and design engineers worked together during the T680’s design and development process. “We first brought together employees from our cab trim, cab assembly and paint areas to review customer comments and pages of data. We then developed a manufacturing book of wishes that we all wanted to see in the T680, and reviewed it with the design engineers as they created the new truck,” Culwell said. “Based on customer wants and our professional experience, we compiled a list of components and features that the truck should have. Working together with the design engineers, we determined how manufacturing could contribute to build a world class truck.”

This interaction between design and manufacturing allowed the engineers from both disciplines to learn from each other. The process produced manufacturing efficiencies, not only of the T680, but for other Kenworth models. For example, engineers quickly discovered that the T680 could be made stronger and the assembly process more efficient by using the Henrob™ self-penetrating fastener as the standard for all joint and installation needs.

“Using this fastener enabled us to standardize our tools and assembly processes, and had some benefits for product enhancement for the T680 and all our vehicles,” Culwell said. “Since the Henrob fastener is self-penetrating, it doesn’t require holes. This allows us to install the stamped aluminum panels on the T680 cab, eliminating the step of pre-punching holes. We have provided customers with a cab structure that is stiff and much more resistant to water, noise, and vibration.”

With the T680, Kenworth also standardized the placement of many different components, noted Culwell. “To increase efficiency, we established new manufacturing standards eliminating variations in where components are placed. That makes the trucks easier to assemble and improved efficiency.”

The manufacturing of the T680 also takes advantage of technology developed for building other Kenworth trucks. Take electrostatic painting, for example. With this technique, electrically charged paint particles are magnetically attracted to the truck’s surface when the vehicle is grounded, Culwell said. This method creates a uniform and durable undercoat for better adhesion of the topcoat for a quality finish.

There are also techniques developed for the T680 that will benefit how other Kenworth trucks are made. Prior to the T680, waterproof urethane was applied robotically before the Kenworth truck windshield was installed, noted Lex Tisdale, Kenworth - Chillicothe plant manufacturing engineering manager. This installation process made it easier for the windshield to be replaced later. The opportunity presented was to find a way to further improve windshield installation efficiency.

“We asked the design engineers to come up with a quick-drying adhesive urethane that would make the T680 windshield leak-free and could also be used on other Kenworth vehicles,” Tisdale said. “The process resulted in a one-piece bonded-in panoramic windshield for the T680 that offers a leak-free design, a 27-degree rake angle for improved aerodynamics and thicker glass for greater rock chip resistance. We found that the windshield takes about a quarter of the time to replace.”

The Kenworth - Chillicothe plant must be flexible to handle the assembly of Kenworth’s different Class 8 trucks with various day cab and sleeper configurations. Plant engineers designed new robotic cells and assembly lines for the Kenworth T680 to work within the existing facility. For example, the robotic cell that applies adhesive and installs the T680’s panoramic windshield can be switched out with a robotic cell that does similar work on the T700 cab trim assembly line. Multi-tasking robots also perform hundreds of programmed steps required to build the T680 cab.

To make the manufacturing process on the Kenworth T680 more efficient, manufacturing teams at the Chillicothe plant developed a two-step plan to adapt the plant for the T680. Since product and manufacturing designs happened on parallel tracks, changes were being made right up to the production of the first line units to take full advantage of the latest technology. “New engineering software combined with simultaneous manufacturing and design engineering enables us to produce the T680’s features more efficiently,” Tisdale said.

“Product design has to be part of the manufacturing design, and manufacturing design has to be part of the product design for a new product like the T680 to be successful. The days of designing a new product and then handing it to manufacturing are over. It really must be done simultaneously because of the complex nature of building an aerodynamic truck as well-designed and engineered as the Kenworth T680,” concluded Tisdale.


Additional Information: 
  • Kenworth Truck Company is the manufacturer of The World’s Best® heavy and medium duty trucks, A PACCAR Company.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Report highlights opportunities to improve rail diesel efficiency

March 15, 2012

A report published today highlights the results of research work carried out by Ricardo and TRL on behalf of the UK Department for Transport, exploring the means by which improvements in diesel fuel efficiency could be realized within the rail network of Great Britain.

The potential fuel saving improvements investigated in the study focused upon diesel powertrain technologies available for retrofit to the existing rolling stock of passenger diesel multiple units (DMUs) and freight locomotives, as well as those that can be incorporated into new rolling stock both to improve fuel economy while also meeting the latest Stage IIIB emissions limits.

Key findings of the report included a number of technically viable solutions that are available to improve rail diesel powertrain efficiency, many of which are commercially attractive in terms of their projected return on investment. The solutions identified by the study were based on well-proven packages of powertrain technologies that have been demonstrated in other industrial sectors, drawing upon Ricardo’s experience in other markets including the on- and off-highway heavy duty automotive, marine and power generation sectors. Owing to the complex nature and age profile of the diesel rail vehicle fleet, the study showed that smaller and more incremental changes applied to a large proportion of the fleet would deliver significantly greater fuel saving benefits than more radical innovations applied to a smaller number of vehicles.

Discussions with key rail industry stakeholders demonstrated that operators working within finite franchise periods will prioritize technologies with low capital costs, proven benefits and the shortest payback periods. However, economic and environmental benefits can be improved by cross-industry collaboration, enabling initiatives that can be deployed across as many vehicles as possible and development costs to be shared more widely.

The report and its conclusions and recommendations are now in the process of being shared with a range of industry stakeholders including rolling stock leasing companies, train operating companies, fleet maintenance and overhaul firms and rail freight operators.

“We have been extremely encouraged by the results and recommendations of this study, which was carried out on behalf of the Department for Transport by Ricardo and TRL,” said a Department for Transport spokesperson. “The rail industry has made significant improvements in fuel consumption at an operational level in recent years, but this report highlights further technology-led initiatives that could also be considered with the aim of reducing fuel costs as well as delivering environmental benefits in terms of reduced fuel consumption and carbon emissions.”


Background – the need to reduce fuel consumption on the railway
Over the last 15 years the rail network in Great Britain (GB) has experienced significant growth in passenger and freight traffic, with demand for services in both sectors expected to continue to rise over the foreseeable future. The GB rail network is unique amongst similarly developed nations, especially those of Western Europe, in terms of its relative geographical isolation and the high proportion of diesel traction that it uses; over two-thirds of the GB rail network is not electrified, thus requiring diesel traction services. It is also unusual by international comparison in the separation between the rolling stock leasing companies, passenger service and freight operators, and the ownership of the infrastructure and permanent way. In addition, the very restricted nature of its loading gauge limits the available opportunities for the adoption of internationally generic vehicle solutions as well as limiting the packaging space for more complex on-board powertrain systems.

While significant achievements have been made by the country’s rail industry in reducing vehicle fuel consumption – particularly in terms of consumption per passenger mile – as a result of technical and operational efficiencies, the UK Government Department for Transport is keen to explore the further practical and commercially attractive options that could be deployed in order to further improve fuel efficiency. The objective in so doing is both to help reduce the operating cost-base of diesel powered rail services, while also helping to meet the country’s commitments on greenhouse gas emissions.  

Assessing technology packages
The primary focus of Ricardo in the study was to review existing diesel traction technologies in use on the railway and to assess the levels of efficiency currently achieved in comparison with state-of-the-art diesel powertrain system efficiencies in other sectors, such as commercial vehicles and off-highway equipment. This enabled direct like-for-like comparisons to be drawn between rail and non-rail sectors, enabling the identification of a series of possible improvements to both new and existing rolling stock that could be made in rail using existing, cost-effective and readily available technologies.

Owing to the limitations of the study it was not possible to evaluate all classes and types of diesel rail vehicle and to provide specific recommendations for each. Instead, the country’s DMU and diesel locomotive fleet was analysed in order to identify the most commercially and environmentally attractive improvement opportunities. The DMU fleet is comprised of in excess of twenty individual classes of vehicle. These were grouped into three categories based on engine type, and the largest group – consisting of the oldest engines with the greatest potential for improvements in fuel efficiency, and representing 55 percent of the DMU fleet and 57 percent of total vehicle mileage – was selected for in-depth research. To provide a basis for comparison of both existing and new technologies, operating duty cycle data was used to represent both a typical inter-city route and a local route with lower speeds and more frequent stopping.

The Class 66 vehicle was selected as the focus of the research for freight locomotives as this forms the backbone of the country’s rail freight network, representing 48 percent of the freight locomotive fleet, and 87 percent of overall freight distance travelled. The duty cycle used for the evaluation of new technologies on freight locomotives was based on 103,600 hours of test data recorded from a study published in 2006.

In order to evaluate the potential costs and fuel consumption benefits of applying new technologies both to the existing fleet as well as to new vehicles, Ricardo evaluated the effects of engine enhancements, parasitic loss reduction measures, waste heat recovery innovations, transmission and driveline system improvements, energy storage technologies and various hybridization measures. These were grouped into practical ‘technology packages’ for each vehicle type, in order that their respective costs, benefits and investment payback periods could be calculated.

Stakeholder engagement – the importance of collaboration
In parallel with Ricardo’s research on powertrain technologies, TRL evaluated previous efficiency improvement initiatives through stakeholder engagement with rolling stock leasing companies, freight and train operating companies (franchise holders) and engine suppliers. This research was used to identify case studies in which such initiatives have been successful and where lessons could be learned in terms of likely technical and operational incentives and obstacles.

Opportunities to improve efficiency
“The results of this research have highlighted a range of practical technology packages that can be readily implemented in order to improve the operational fuel efficiency of diesel rolling stock,” said Ricardo director of rail vehicle technology, Jim Buchanan. “The challenge of identifying the optimal technology solution for a given fleet of vehicles is complicated by the business parameters within which each operator and rolling stock owner is operating. However, as the study has indicated, there are a number of technology packages applicable to new vehicles, as well as for retrofitting to existing fleets, some of which offer the prospect of very tangible fuel consumption savings as well as commercial returns.”

“The structure of the GB rail industry provides a challenging environment for fleet-wide improvement initiatives,” said Vijay Ramdas of TRL. “The stakeholder engagement aspects of this research highlighted clearly that when the rail industry forms coalitions of common interest between companies representing its many different sectors, significant benefits are possible. Through collaborative working by operators, maintenance providers and fleet owners, it should be possible to realize significant environmental and economic benefits from the application of new, fuel-efficient technology packages.”

“Many opportunities for improving GB rail diesel powertrain efficiency have been identified in this study, with seven technology packages suggested for initial comparison,” added Buchanan. “A large number of further synergistic technology combinations are possible, which Ricardo is actively investigating in order to implement these changes with the key stakeholders in GB rail.”

Source:  Ricardo

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Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Volvo V40: Pedestrian Safety Technology

March 14, 2012

Pedestrian Airbag Technology. Another world first from Volvo Car Corporation. The rear end of the bonnet is released and at the same time elevated by the deploying airbag. The inflated airbag covers the area under the raised bonnet plus approximately one third of the windscreen area and the lower part of the A-pillar. Credit: Volvo

Adding several new high-tech features to a full deck of safety and support systems from larger models makes the all-new Volvo V40 the most IntelliSafe Volvo so far. The new features include world-first Pedestrian Airbag Technology. The all-new V40 also features the groundbreaking Pedestrian Detection with full auto brake - as well as the City Safety further developed low-speed collision avoidance system which now operates at speeds up to 50 km/h.

Pedestrian Detection - unique in this class
Pedestrian accidents occur every day in our increasingly intensive traffic environments. In Europe, 14 percent of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians. The corresponding figure for the USA is 12 percent and in China the proportion is over 25 percent.

Pedestrian Detection with full auto brake is a technology that can detect if a pedestrian steps out into the road in front of the car. If the driver does not respond in time, the car can warn and automatically activate the brakes. No other car in this class features a similar technology.

Pedestrian Detection with full auto brake consists of a radar unit integrated into the car's grille, a camera fitted in front of the interior rear-view mirror, and a central control unit. The radar's task is to detect a pedestrian or vehicle in front of the car and to determine the distance to it. The camera determines what type of object it is.

Thanks to the dual-mode radar's wide field of vision, pedestrians about to step into the roadway can also be detected early on. The innovative technology is programmed to trace a pedestrian's pattern of movement and also to calculate whether he or she is likely to step into the road in front of the car. The system can detect pedestrians who are 80 cm tall or taller.

In an emergency situation the driver first receives an audible warning combined with a flashing light in the windscreen's head-up display. If the driver does not react to the warning and a collision is imminent, full braking power is automatically applied.

Pedestrian Detection with full auto brake can avoid a collision with a pedestrian at speeds up to 35 km/h if the driver does not react in time. At higher speeds, the focus is on reducing the car's speed as much as possible prior to impact.

Statistics reveal that the car's speed has considerable importance for the outcome of the collision. A lower speed of impact means that the risk of serious injury is significantly reduced.

Pedestrian Airbag Technology - a world first

In order to mitigate the consequences if a collision with a pedestrian is unavoidable, the Volvo V40 features newly developed Pedestrian Airbag Technology, a world first. It works like this:

Sensors in the front bumper register the physical contact between the car and the pedestrian. The rear end of the bonnet is released and at the same time elevated by the deploying airbag.

The inflated airbag covers the area under the raised bonnet plus approximately one third of the windscreen area and the lower part of the A-pillar.

The raised bonnet and airbag will help reduce the severity of pedestrian injuries.

Source: Volvo Cars

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Startram Project: Maglev track could launch spacecraft into orbit

March 13, 2012

A spacecraft emerging from the Startram magnetically levitated launch system

Getting into space is one of the harder tasks to be taken on by humanity. The present cost of inserting a kilogram (2.2 lb) of cargo by rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is about US$10,000. A manned launch to LEO costs about $100,000 per kilogram of passenger. But who says we have to reach orbit by means of rocket propulsion alone? Instead, imagine sitting back in a comfortable magnetic levitation (maglev) train and taking a train ride into orbit.

All right, its not quite that simple or comfortable - but it should be possible using only existing technology.

Dr George Maise invented the Startram orbital launch system along with Dr James Powell, who is one of the inventors of superconducting maglev - for which he won the 2002 Franklin Medal in engineering. Startram is in essence a superconducting maglev launch system.

The system would see a spacecraft magnetically levitated to avoid friction, while the same magnetic system is used to accelerate the spacecraft to orbital velocities - just under 9 km/sec (5.6 miles/s). Maglev passenger trains have carried passengers at nearly 600 kilometers per hour (373 mph) - spacecraft have to be some 50 times faster, but the physics and much of the engineering is the same.

The scope of the project is challenging. A launch system design for routine passenger flight into LEO should have rather low acceleration - perhaps about 3 g's maximum, which then requires 5 minutes of acceleration to reach LEO transfer velocities. In that period, the spacecraft will have traveled 1,000 miles (1,609 km). The maglev track must be 1,000 miles in length - similar in size to maglev train tracks being considered for cross-country transportation.

Like a train, the Startram track can follow the surface of the Earth for most of this length. Side forces associated with the curvature of the surface can be accommodated by the design, but not the drag and sonic shock waves of a craft traveling at hypersonic velocity at sea level - the spacecraft and launching track would be torn to shreds.

To avoid this, the Startram track must be contained inside a vacuum tube with vents to allow air compressed in front of the spacecraft to escape the tube. A vacuum equivalent to atmospheric conditions at an altitude of 75 km (about 0.01 Torr) should suffice for the efficient operation of the Startram launch system. Rapid pumping to achieve this pressure will be provided by a magnetohydrodynamic vacuum pump.

If the entire Startram tube is at sea level, on exiting the tube the spacecraft will suddenly be subjected to several hundred g's due to atmospheric drag - rather like hitting a brick wall. To reduce this effect to a tolerable acceleration, the end of the Startram vacuum tube must be elevated to an altitude of about 20 km (12 miles). At this height, the initial deceleration from atmospheric drag will be less than 3 g's, and will rapidly decrease as the spacecraft reaches higher altitudes.

View of the magnetically levitated Startram launching tube rising toward the skies

This new requirement begs the question - how do we hold up the exit end of the Startram vacuum tube? Well, the tube already contains superconducting cable and rings. Powell and Maise realized that the tube could be magnetically levitated to this altitude. If we arrange that there is a superconducting cable on the ground carrying 200 million amperes, and a superconducting cable in the launch tube carrying 20 million amperes, at an altitude of 20 km there will be a levitating force of about 4 tons per meter of cable length - more than enough to levitate the launch tube.
The Startram launch tube is securely tethered to ground

The vacuum tube would be held down against excess levitation force by high strength tethers. Dyneema (UHMWPE) is more than strong enough for this purpose. Redundant design would make a failure of the levitation system most unlikely.

The Startram launch system contains other technological wonders, such as a plasma window on the exit of the vacuum tube to prevent the inrush of the relatively dense air at that altitude from ruining the vacuum within the tube. However, all the required technology exists and is understood. The only engineering effort involved here is in increasing the scale.

Sandia National Laboratories has carried out a '"murder-squad" investigation of the Startram concept, whose purpose is to find any flaw in a proposed project. They gave Startram a clean bill of health. Estimates suggest that building a passenger-capable Startram would require 20 years and a construction budget (ignoring inflation and overoptimism) of about $60 billion.

Why take on such an enormous project? Simple - $50 per kilogram amortized launch costs. The total worldwide cost of developing and using rocket-based space travel is more than $500 billion. The Space Shuttle program cost about $170 billion. The International Space Station has cost about $150 billion to date. As yet, we are making very little commercial use of near-Earth space beyond deployment of communication and imaging satellites. Reducing the LEO insertion costs a hundredfold should finally start our commercial exploitation of the special resources of space. Not to mention making orbital hotels a travel goal for middle-class tourists!

Source: Gizmag

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Thursday, 1 March 2012

Generating electricity from vibrations in road surface works

March 1, 2012

Credit: University of Twente

A pilot research project into vibration energy on the N34 provincial motorway near Hardenberg in the eastern Netherlands has shown that vibration energy as a local energy source is a sustainable alternative for the batteries of roadside sensors and other applications. The trial project has provided valuable insights into this innovative form of energy production.

In the autumn of 2011, a piezoelectric material that converts vibrations from passing vehicles into energy was applied to the surface of the N34 motorway. The piezoelectric material was applied to the road surface in a rural area where the speed limit is 100 km per hour. The aim of the pilot project was to investigate the feasibility of piezo technology in road construction. The research was carried out by the Tauw advice and engineering agency and the University of Twente in partnership with the Dutch province of Overijssel.

The aim of the pilot project was to establish whether electrical energy can be generated from traffic vibrations using piezoelectric material and, if so, how much energy can be generated. The trial system was tested in various weather conditions between October and December 2011. A measurement device was used to continually monitor the system and collect data.

Tauw and the University of Twente have concluded that energy can indeed be generated using piezoelectric material in the road surface. The amount of energy generated depends on the number of passing vehicles and the number of piezo elements in the road. Vehicles that are moving more slowly appear to generate slightly more energy than faster-moving vehicles, but further research is needed to confirm this.

The amount of energy generated during the pilot project was too small to be used for traffic lights or street lighting, but it was enough for devices that need less energy, such as wireless motion sensors, which detect vehicles and send a signal to, for example, traffic lights. Currently these are mainly powered by batteries or solar panels. Vibration energy is a sustainable alternative for these power sources.

The project partners also concluded that integrating piezo elements in an existing road surface is problematic. For the pilot research, a narrow groove was cut into the road and a steel housing containing the piezo elements was fitted into it. Ultimately it turned out that the housing was not strong enough to withstand the forces of the passing traffic, and it came loose in December. This did not cause a traffic hazard, but it did mean that the research ended a few weeks earlier than planned.

The project partners are hopeful about other applications. Project leader Simon Bos says: “The application of vibration energy in existing roads did turn out to be difficult, but we do see possibilities for existing and new bridges and viaducts, for example at expansion joints. Of course further research into a good, strong design has to be carried out before this can be applied on a large scale.”

Next steps
Following the pilot project, various interested parties have contacted Tauw and the University of Twente to carry out further research into vibration energy. Piezo elements can not only be fitted under bridges and viaducts, but also under concrete road slabs and speed bumps, or alongside railway lines or water drainage channels. The application of piezo elements beneath concrete slabs is at an advanced stage, while the other possible applications are still in the research phase.

Source: University of Twente

Material Flow and Logistics technology: Swarming and transporting

March 1, 2012

The autonomous transporters perform their work in a swarm.  Source:  Fraunhofer IML

On its own, an ant is not particularly clever. But in a community, the insects can solve complicated tasks. Researchers intend to put this „swarm intelligence“ to use in the logistics field. Lots of autonomous transport shuttles would provide an alternative to traditional materials-handling technology.

The orange-colored vehicle begins moving with a quiet whirr. Soon afterwards the next shuttles begin to move, and before long there are dozens of mini-transporters rolling around in the hall. As if by magic, they head for the high-rack storage shelves or spin around their own axis. But the Multishuttle Moves® – is the name given to these driverless transport vehicles – are not performing some robots‘ ballet. They are moving around in the service of science. At the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Dortmund, Germany, researchers are working to harness swarm intelligence as a means of improving the flow of materials and goods in the warehouse environment. In a research hall 1000 square meters in size, the scientists have replicated a small-scale distribution warehouse with storage shelves for 600 small-part carriers and eight picking stations. The heart of the testing facility is a swarm of 50 autonomous vehicles. “In the future, transport systems should be able to perform all of these tasks autonomously, from removal from storage at the shelf to delivery to a picking station. This will provide an alternative to conventional materials-handling solutions,“ explains Prof. Dr. Michael ten Hompel, executive director at IML.

But how do the vehicles know what they should transport, and where, and which of the 50 shuttles will take on any particular order? “The driverless transport vehicles are locally controlled. The ›intelligence‹ is in the transporters themselves,“ Dipl.-Ing. Thomas Albrecht, head of the Autonomous Transport Systems department explains the researchers‘ solution approach. “We rely on agent-based software and use ant algorithms based on the work of Marco Dorigo. These are methods of combinational optimization based on the model behavior of real ants in their search for food.“ When an order is received, the shuttles are informed of this through a software agent. They then coordinate with one another via WLAN to determine which shuttle can take over the load. The job goes to whichever free transport system is closest.

The shuttles are completely unimpeded as they navigate throughout the space – with no guidelines. Their integrated localization and navigation technology make this possible. The vehicles have a newly developed, hybrid sensor concept with signal-based location capability, distance and acceleration sensors and laser scanners. This way, the vehicles can compute the shortest route to any destination. The sensors also help prevent collisions.

The vehicles are based on the components of the shelf-bound Multishuttle already successfully in use for several years. The researchers at IML have worked with colleagues at Dematic to develop the system further. The special feature about the Multishuttle Move®: the transporters can navigate in the storage area and in the hall. To accomplish this, the shuttles are fitted with an additional floor running gear. But what benefits do these autonomous transporters offer compared with conventional steady materials-handling technology with roller tracks? “The system is considerably more flexible and scalable,“ Albrecht points out. It can grow or contract depending on the needs at hand. This is how system performance can be adapted to seasonal and daily fluctuation. Another benefit: It considerably shortens transportation paths. In conventional storage facilities, materials-handling equipment obstructs the area between high-rack storage and picking stations. Packages must travel two to three times farther than the direct route. “It also makes shelf-control units and steady materials-handling technology,“ Albrecht adds. Researchers are now trying to determine how these autonomous transporters can improve intralogistics. “We want to demonstrate that cellular materials-handling technology makes sense not only technically but also economically as an alternative to classic materials-handling technology and shelf-control units,“ institute executive director ten Hompel observes. If this succeeds, the autonomous vehicles could soon be going into service in warehouses.

Source: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

Materials: Building lightweight trains

March 1, 2012

These diesel trains for housing is manufactured from a light polyurethane-based material, yet extremely durable. Source:  Fraunhofer ICT

The less trains weigh, the more economical they are to run. A new material capable of withstanding even extreme stresses has now been developed. It is suitable for a variety of applications, not least diesel engine housings on trains – and it makes these components over 35 percent lighter than their steel and aluminum counterparts.

In their efforts to render cars and trains more economical, manufacturers are trying to find lighter materials to replace those currently used. But there is a problem: Lighter materials tend not to be as tough as steel or aluminum, so they cannot simply be used in place of these metals. Rather, it is a question of manufacturers deciding which components can really afford to have weight shaved off and how to integrate them into the overall systems.

Working together with Bombardier GmbH, KraussMaffei Kunststofftechnik GmbH, Bayer MaterialScience AG, DECS GmbH, the DLR’s Institute for Vehicle Concepts, the University of Stuttgart and the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT in Pfinztal have now developed a polyurethane-based sandwich material that is extremely resilient. “To demonstrate the material, we manufactured a component that is subject to significant stresses and which has to fulfill a number of requirements – the diesel engine housing for a train,” says Jan Kuppinger, a scientist at the ICT. This housing is located beneath the passenger compartment, i.e. between the car and the tracks. Not only does it shield the engine against flying stones and protect the environment from any oil that might escape, but in the event of a fire, it also stops the flames from spreading, thus meeting the flame retardant and fire safety standards for railway vehicles. Kuppinger adds: “By using this new material, we can reduce the component’s weight by over 35 percent – and cut costs by 30 percent.”

The researchers opted for a sandwich construction to ensure component stability: Glass fiber reinforced polyurethane layers form the outer facings, while the core is made of paper honeycomb. Polyurethane is a bulk plastic combining two substances. Since it can be adapted to fulfill various requirements, it is referred to as a ‘customizable material’. In foamed form it is soft, and can be used for example as a material for mattresses; in compact form it is strong and hard. The researchers began by incorporating various additives into their polyurethane, altering it in such a way as to ensure it would meet fire safety standards. Then, the partners optimized the standard manufacturing process, fiber spraying, by developing a mixing chamber which allows even more complex structures to be produced in any required size. The diesel engine housing they made is approximately 4.5 meters long and more than 2 meters wide. “This is the first time it has proved possible to use this process to manufacture such a large and complex component that also satisfies the structural requirements,” states Kuppinger. Previously, one problem encountered with fiber spraying was that it was impossible to determine the precise thickness of the polyurethane top layers. But now the researchers have found a way to do this, using computer tomography to inspect the manufactured layers and then applying a specially-adapted evaluation routine to establish their exact thickness. This information helps to simulate the strength of the component, as well as its ability to withstand stresses.

The scientists produced their diesel engine housing demonstrator as part of the PURtrain project, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The demonstrator passed its first strength test – in which the scientists placed it in a test rig and then applied forces to it at various locations, measuring the extent to which it deformed – with flying colors. In the next stage, the researchers want to trial the component in a proper field test. If that, too, proves successful, it will then be possible to use the material to make roof segments, side flaps and wind deflectors for the automobile and commercial vehicle industry, and to ramp up the manufacturing process to produce medium volumes of between 250 and 30,000 units.

Source: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft