THE future of public transport has been unveiled in Oxfordshire with the launch of a self-driving bus steered by space technology using ultrasound to avoid obstacles in the same way as a bat.

The electric driverless shuttle, controlled by mobile phone signals and satellite technology, made its first journey with passengers yesterday at Harwell, near Didcot.

The autonomous shuttle is transporting passengers at a speed of 14mph around Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in a year-long trial funded by the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

Read more: I had a ride on the first driverless bus in the UK roads, here is how it went

Oxford Mail: Credit: Darwin/UK Space Agency Credit: Darwin/UK Space Agency

It was described by the UK Space Agency as a “greener, safer and more efficient” way to travel which could soon be seen in towns and cities around the country.

The new service is being trialled by Darwin Innovation Group on the campus, with support from the space agencies.

Darwin will maintain and monitor the service, tracking the shuttle’s location and gathering information about its operation as it travels.

Data will be transmitted from the shuttle in real time using satellite communication and phone company O2’s 4G and 5G networks.

Science Minister George Freeman said: “Until now autonomous vehicles have relied on terrestrial Wi-Fi which means they can struggle to operate in remote and rural areas. By unlocking the power of space and satellite technology, these new shuttles can stay connected all the time.”

The service will help to demonstrate the potential of self-driving vehicles to operate in a real-world setting.

Emily Gravestock of the UK Space Agency said: “This is the future of public transport, greener, safer and more efficient.”

Ms Gravestock said this is a system that will develop as it deals with more traffic and learns different features, she continued: “This is happening at Harwell Campus. But over the coming years, we will have more of these shuttles on standard roads beyond the campus to go to train stations or connect up different science parks in the area.

“In five or 10 years’ time, this will be part of the road furniture.”

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The driverless vehicle, created by a French company called Navya, uses sensors, cameras and ultrasound technology – similar to that used by animals such as bats, whales and dolphins – to navigate around any obstacles and features a satellite antenna for positioning.

Oxford Mail: Peter AntalPeter Antal

The shuttle does not have a steering wheel, but it does have safety controls, managed by an on-board operator using an Xbox video game controller.


Peter Antal, one of two trained operators, said the driverless vehicles might seem scary to some people, but eventually it is going to be normal and wants to reassure passengers that it is safe.

He said: “I think it is very important to have an operator on board, so we can give people more confidence, especially the ones riding it for the first time. We can chat to them and explain to them how things work and give them confidence.

“It is new, but it is safe”

The shuttle is insured by Aviva, which will use the trial and resulting data to better understand the evolving mobility market.

The Harwell service will run on weekdays from morning to evening, transporting up to 15 passengers at a time.

There is no cost to ride the shuttle for campus pass-holders and registered guests.


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