Partners in an Autonomous Future
Bertrandt is a European company that specializes in automotive control technologies. Bertrandt believes they have found the perfect partner to provide GNSS technology for its road vehicle platforms with Hexagon's Positioning Intelligence division (Hexagon PI). Hexagon PI leverages positioning technology and products from its NovAtel® brand for safety critical markets such as the autonomous vehicles industry.
The PIM7500 GNSS receiver delivers precise positioning, a key capability that, when combined with state-of-the-art image processing, object detection and other route data collection techniques, enables highly accurate mapping; a prerequisite for tomorrow’s automated mass transportation and mobility systems.
The Bertrandt Group has been developing solutions for the international automotive and aviation industries in Europe, China and the USA for more than 40 years. Since May 2018, Bertrandt has been using its new LiDAR and GNSS-equipped platform to carry out a series of trials onboard an electric public transportation bus in historic Regensburg, Germany.
Located in Bavaria, Regensburg is one of Germany’s oldest towns. Founded by the Romans in the year 179, today the city is home to about 137,000 inhabitants, with three universities and many outstanding historic landmarks, mostly dating from the Middle Ages. The e-bus EMIL, with Bertrandt and Hexagon PI inside, is traveling the ‘Old Town’ route in Regensburg, serving the likes of St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Old City Hall and the Stone Bridge.
Lead engineer Angel Herrero Calle, who is based in Regensburg, is responsible for Bertrandt’s Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS). “The e-bus EMIL itself is not driverless,” he explained. “But we are using it, with our research platform installed, to gain knowledge and experience in the field of autonomous driving.”
As the bus moves through city streets, he explained, picking up and delivering passengers, a LiDAR sensor collects raw data, which is then processed for object recognition, an essential capability for future autonomous driving in the urban environment. Of course precise positioning is necessary to allow the transformation of imaging data into useful mapping and navigation information.
Urban GNSS Finds its Way
“The Hexagon Positioning Intelligence PIM7500 module offers a very compact form factor and, in combination with SPAN® technology, it gives us a very good positioning precision, even without RTK or SBAS,” Herrero Calle said. “There are two very important things to talk about here. First is the module’s dual-frequency capability, which improves accuracy and precision.”
Indeed, there is now a widespread recognition among industry and user segments that dual-frequency GNSS delivers better positioning and navigation data in urban and other complex environments. This is because GNSS signals require ‘line-of-sight’ contact between satellites and receivers, and signals can be easily blocked by the tall buildings in inner cities. Compounding the problem is the fact that the signals that do manage to reach the floors of our ‘urban canyons’ are often being reflected off buildings and other urban features, resulting in multiple and confusing signals. The so-called ‘multipath’ effect, is a considerable source of navigation error in cities and in other challenging environments.
With multi-frequency GNSS, the unique shape of the E5/L5 frequency, added to the standard E1/L1 GNSS frequency, makes it easier to separate real signals from reflected signals. GPS, Europe’s Galileo and other global satellite systems are now moving rapidly towards multi-frequency as a basic GNSS service, essentially delivering a new and extremely powerful tool to receiver manufacturers, developers of vehicle systems, and the entire GNSS user community.
“The second thing I wanted to mention,” said Herrero Calle, “is the SPAN solution, which also helps a lot in urban environments, giving us reliable position information even when satellite information is poor.” Hexagon PI uses NovAtel’s SPAN technology that tightly-couples precision GNSS with robust Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs). The IMUs, in a sense, ‘feel’ the motion of the vehicle to provide reliable, continuously available position, velocity and attitude, even over short periods of time when satellite signals are completely blocked or otherwise unavailable.
“Of course it was important for us to have not only a very good GNSS module but also a high-quality antenna.” Herrero Calle said. “We are using NovAtel’s GNSS-502, which is also dual-band capable.”
Herrero Calle said the close partnership between Bertrandt and Hexagon PI has been an important factor in the success of the project. “The working relationship has been excellent in every aspect!” he said. “The first contact took place at a technology fair, and we recognized then and right away that the quality of NovAtel products was reason enough to work with them. Add to that what we’ve learned since then about the kind of technical support they are able to deliver and I’m very sure we made the right decision.”
In addition to Hexagon PI, other Bertrandt partners in the e-bus project include Microsoft (Azure Cloud) and Quanergy.
Coming on Strong
Anyone paying attention will know that we are at this very moment living history; history that is the dawn of mass driverless mobility. Autonomous driving is developing rapidly. More and more semi-autonomous systems are already in service, even in consumer road vehicles, and there is no doubt that we will see fully autonomous cars in operation on our highways and motorways sooner rather than later. The impetus need be nothing more than economics, but the good reasons for autonomy in road transport will also encompass vastly improved safety for human passengers.
For Bertrandt, the goal now is to help bring the autonomous mobility revolution into the urban context. To that end, the e-Bus EMIL in Regensburg is providing an in situ research platform for tackling the special challenges involved in live urban operations.
As a partner in the Bavaria sponsored E-Mobility Cluster Regensburg, Bertrandt has taken the opportunity to use the EMIL bus as a research platform through to autumn 2018. Engineers are looking at a broad range of questions and seeking to develop new competencies in areas such as the use of machine learning for dynamic object recognition, i.e. the ability to identify objects like pedestrians or cyclists that are in motion. LiDAR image processing, data transfer, and localization are all being handled in house by Bertrandt’s interdisciplinary team.
The Regensburg project is a clear indicator of Bertrandt’s own desire and readiness to take on a higher profile in the world of autonomous driving. Forward-thinking Bertrandt customers are sure to be gratified to see the increasing autonomy-related skills and know-how being accrued by the company.
The company is also thinking in terms of recruiting, training and acquisition. The company already boasts around 13,000 employees at 54 locations, possessing high levels of expertise with a strong customer orientation. By making positive, fruitful and highly visible contributions to the advent of autonomous mobility in cities, it hopes to draw new and valuable autonomy-minded talent into its ranks.
At the launch of the project last May, officials such as Manfred Koller, managing director of public-owned Stadtwerke Regensburg, praised Bertrandt for the way it is looking to the future, developing and implementing technologies of tomorrow in cooperation with other companies and even academic institutions like the OTH Regensburg, all of which is good for the local community and the wider world.
A continued partnership with Hexagon Positioning Intelligence, is certainly in the cards, Herrero Calle said. “Of course we can expect to work with them again, whenever we need positioning solutions for our next projects.” And that likely means sooner rather than later.
“I think the future is autonomous,” he said, “and the next few years will set the foundation for it. There are still a lot of questions—technical, ethical, and others—but these questions will be answered.”
As for when and where an ‘average citizen’ can expect to find him or herself riding along in a vehicle without a driver, Herrero Calle said, “Maybe the first experience will be in a ‘test environment’, such as a car sharing demonstration or in a public transportation scenario, sort of like the one we are implementing here in Regensburg.”
“As always, as soon as the price for driverless mobility becomes affordable, the market will accept it and the mass uptake will start to happen.”
From the looks of things, Bertrandt will be around for that mass uptake, and Hexagon Positioning Intelligence will also undoubtedly have a role to play. With products on offer like the PIM7500 GNSS receiver, Hexagon PI has already demonstrated its readiness and, with initiatives like the Regensburg EMIL bus project, its willingness to work hand-in-hand with partners who are moving in the same direction.