Drones, Bots and Self-Driving Cars: How This New Kanata North Innovation Centre Will Help Drive the Future of Autonomous Vehicles

“It’s a place of limitless imagination,” says University of Ottawa (uOttawa) professor Burak Kantarci about the Faculty of Engineering’s new Smart Connected Vehicles Innovation Centre, which opened its doors in October. Located in uOttawa’s Kanata North campus, in the heart of Canada’s largest technology park, the centre will help the tech industry accelerate the autonomous vehicle innovation.

The term “autonomous vehicle,” or “smart vehicle,” refers to any vehicle equipped with decision-making systems and sensors that allow it to perceive its surroundings. Self-driving cars typically come to mind, but drones and bots are also part of this ecosystem.

“What excites me most is that we’re essentially envisioning the future of this technology, which will soon be ubiquitous and indispensable to society,” says Kantarci. “We’re working with industry on different topics simultaneously and finding solutions to problems that the tech world is facing. It’s never just a single problem or a single solution, so it requires a lot of imagination.”

The centre offers rapid, low-cost experimentation for connected and autonomous vehicles, including self-driving car prototypes, drones and certain types of ground bots. Its research will focus primarily on problem-solving issues related to the connectivity, physical and cyber security, decision making and sustainability of vehicles and networks.

“In other words, we design experiments to assess how these vehicles talk to each other and their connected units, making sure they maintain healthy communication, making sure sensors aren’t compromised, so they don’t break down,” Kantarci says. “We try to anticipate where anomalies can occur in the platforms and find ways to reconfigure networks to avoid these anomalies happening in the first place, so there is no service disruption for the end user.”

What makes the centre unique is that it’s an open access research facility. Not only is it embedded in one of Canada’s largest technology development hubs, but it is also positioned to bring together experts from various fields — social scientists, economists, ethics and compliance specialists, and decision-makers, alongside engineers and computer scientists — to maximize innovation.

“The Smart Connected Vehicles Innovation Centre is vital to realizing our vision of building a successful technology ecosystem in Kanata North,” says Sylvain Charbonneau, vice-president, research at the University of Ottawa. “Its forward-looking research will be a valuable asset to the development of real-life applications in this rapidly growing industry.”

“This new, highly relevant research infrastructure, complemented with some of our brightest talent, offers a compelling advantage to our industry partners looking to de-risk and accelerate prototyping of their solutions for faster time to market,” says Veronica Farmer, director, partnerships and commercialization, at uOttawa Kanata North.

The centre’s indoor experimental test bed has been paired with state-of-the-art computing infrastructure for collecting vast amounts of data, along with powerful workstations for running advanced machine-learning models.

“One of the biggest challenges starting out in this field was finding data,” says Kantarci. “Through our experiments, we will be able to generate this data in real time and for any scenario. And that’s what’s most valuable. It’s going to be our fuel of the next decade.”

Supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) through its Alliance grants program, Kantarci’s research team and its collaborators recently developed a strategy to send AI-driven autonomous vehicles serving as COVID-19 rapid testing facilities into vulnerable, at-risk communities to help them reduce the spread of the virus.

First, they used mobility data to identify where infected populations might be located. Then they assessed the risk levels for different regions or communities, to map out optimal trajectories and use their mobile testing facilities to identify individuals who had contracted the virus as early as possible.

The AI-driven decision models could also help health officials and supply chain solution providers make more effective decisions amid the current pandemic or a future health crisis.

“For a long time, vehicles were not much more than a means of transportation,” says Kantarci. “But from now on, and in the future, connected autonomous vehicles are going to be used for everything, everywhere.”

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