Making a LiDAR – Part 2

The Holistic Design Problem

By: David
Principal Consultant, Data Exploration

9th April 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering » Page 3

The Holistic Design Problem

I’m tempted to say that designing software for a word processor is easy, and whilst many will quite rightly disagree, my point is that a word processor software architect doesn’t have to think about anyone other than themselves and a few well published APIs (and perhaps the user interface if we are lucky, but that’s perhaps the subject of a different Blog!). It all gets far more complicated when we are designing something with electronics and moving parts. That’s because we have a set of disciplines with circular dependencies. The mechanical design team need to understand the limitations and requirements of the electronics and software, but that’s hard to do until the electronics and software teams understand the mechanics. In other words, we have a chicken and egg problem to solve.

We are going to build our Lidar with a laser range finder, and we will want to spin the range finder around on the azimuth, and after every 360 degrees, we will need to bump it in elevation. We could use DC motors, we could use gimbal motors, we could use stepper motors, or we could even use servos. Whatever we pick, we can be sure that we face choices that make things easier for one discipline and harder for another. We need to make the choice that is best for the design.

Our electronic designers might decide that the simplicity of a DC motor is rather attractive, but we have to ask if our software engineers are going to be grateful when they have to start counting rotary encoder pulses to figure out how much a DC motor has moved. Equally, the mechanical engineers will thank nobody when they have to add a rotary encoder to the design. In fact, everybody apart from the electronics engineers will much prefer a stepper motor (the precise movement of a stepper motor is implicit, so they are great for applications like 3D printers). So, with that all said, we will make a decision for our Lidar and use stepper motors. We’ve made our electronics more complicated, but we’ve saved on software effort, we’ve simplified mechanical design, and we have reduced the bill of materials.

With the stepper motor decision made, the mechanical design can start. We can also start writing our embedded control software and designing our PCBs – or can we? If you’re familiar with embedded microcontrollers you’ll likely know they are software configurable with a multitude of different functions, and with a choice as to which, functions appear on which pins. So here is our cross disciple problem again; we need to make sure the software engineers don’t make a bad decision. A wrong software decision at that start could force our PCB designers to try and route four signal lines between two 0.5 mm pitch pins. Equally, a bad decision on pinout by the PCB designers might have subtle but severe consequences to our software engineers.

Needless to say, my examples are of course tongue in cheek, but I’m sure you’ll understand the point I’m making. It’s a really important concept that design needs to be multidisciplinary and that success only comes with cross-domain decisions made by people that understand the complete picture.

I’m tempted to say that designing software for a word processor is easy, and whilst many will quite rightly disagree, my point is that a word processor software architect doesn’t have to think about anyone other than themselves and a few well published APIs (and perhaps the user interface if we are lucky, but that’s perhaps the subject of a different Blog!). It all gets far more complicated when we are designing something with electronics and moving parts. That’s because we have a set of disciplines with circular dependencies. The mechanical design team need to understand the limitations and requirements of the electronics and software, but that’s hard to do until the electronics and software teams understand the mechanics. In other words, we have a chicken and egg problem to solve.

We are going to build our Lidar with a laser range finder, and we will want to spin the range finder around on the azimuth, and after every 360 degrees, we will need to bump it in elevation. We could use DC motors, we could use gimbal motors, we could use stepper motors, or we could even use servos. Whatever we pick, we can be sure that we face choices that make things easier for one discipline and harder for another. We need to make the choice that is best for the design.

Our electronic designers might decide that the simplicity of a DC motor is rather attractive, but we have to ask if our software engineers are going to be grateful when they have to start counting rotary encoder pulses to figure out how much a DC motor has moved. Equally, the mechanical engineers will thank nobody when they have to add a rotary encoder to the design. In fact, everybody apart from the electronics engineers will much prefer a stepper motor (the precise movement of a stepper motor is implicit, so they are great for applications like 3D printers). So, with that all said, we will make a decision for our Lidar and use stepper motors. We’ve made our electronics more complicated, but we’ve saved on software effort, we’ve simplified mechanical design, and we have reduced the bill of materials.

With the stepper motor decision made, the mechanical design can start. We can also start writing our embedded control software and designing our PCBs – or can we? If you’re familiar with embedded microcontrollers you’ll likely know they are software configurable with a multitude of different functions, and with a choice as to which, functions appear on which pins. So here is our cross disciple problem again; we need to make sure the software engineers don’t make a bad decision. A wrong software decision at that start could force our PCB designers to try and route four signal lines between two 0.5 mm pitch pins. Equally, a bad decision on pinout by the PCB designers might have subtle but severe consequences to our software engineers.

Needless to say, my examples are of course tongue in cheek, but I’m sure you’ll understand the point I’m making. It’s a really important concept that design needs to be multidisciplinary and that success only comes with cross-domain decisions made by people that understand the complete picture.

Further Reading

Making a LiDAR – Part 1

LiDAR Mechanical Aspects

By: David
Principal Consultant, Data Exploration

8th April 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering » Page 3

LiDAR mechanical aspects


In concept, a LIDAR scanner is a rather simple way of capturing 3D scans of a physical environment, and in this series of 5 blogs I’ll take you through my various thought processes in building a working LIDAR prototype. In our LIDAR prototype, we will see if we can use a GARMIN laser range finder sensor to build a working LIDAR. We will spin the range finder on its azimuth, and after each complete revolution, we will nudge it slightly to point upwards at increasingly steeper angles. At the same time, we will continually capture the measured distance data to the target. When the scan is complete we will have a data set called a point cloud that represents the distance from the LIDAR to every point in the room and that’s just perfect for rendering on an Oculus Rift VR headset. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, we have a few mechanical problems to solve first.


If you’ve seen the press hype about 3D printed firearms you might be surprised to hear me express 3D printer disappointment, and In fact, you might have expected a 3D printer to be my perfect “drawing board to the physical word” prototyping tool. But, I’d say the reality is rather different. It’s hard to say if my scepticism comes from the PLA filament unravelling, the shrinkage leaving questionable tolerances, the poor finish, or the print times in excess of 12 hours. Either way, I’m unconvinced by the results of consumer and light industrial 3D printers. So, we’ll build our LIDAR parts old school with a manual lathe and mill. (There is just one niggling point and very important points that we will come to later where we use a 3D printer to enable everything!) I should also add that my industrial design colleagues producing beautiful flowing curved case works may have a very different opinion to myself. For them, 3D printing comes into its own.

We’ve also got an electrical wiring problem to solve, and that’s because we need to get power and data to our range finder without our wires getting twisted. We’ve got three obvious choices on how to do this; we can spin 360 degrees and then unwind the wires by spinning the other way, or we can build a complicated inductive power system with RF\optical to carry data (no wires to twist), or we can use a slip ring (a slip ring works just like the brushes on an electrical motor). The first solution is ugly and will slow the scan down with all the stopping and starting. The second solution sounds robust, but it’s a design exercise in itself that adds unnecessary burden to our budget. Ideally, we’d rather not have that for a prototype. The third solution is quick, very low cost, but will eventually fail as the slip ring brushes degrade. None the less, even a low-end slip ring is rated 5,000,000 revolutions, which is more than enough for our prototype.


Our slip ring will need to fit through the body of a rotating shaft, and it needs to be mounted with screws that clamp the slip ring flange onto the shaft. There isn’t anything we can do to change the slip ring dimensions, so follow it through and the shaft diameter comes in at around 22mm. We’ll need the shaft to fit through bearings, and we want the shaft to rotate. We’ll do that with a timing belt and timing gear around the shaft.

In concept, a LIDAR scanner is a rather simple way of making 3D scans of a physical environment. In our LIDAR prototype, we will see if we can use a GARMIN laser range finder sensor to build a working LIDAR. We will spin the range finder on its azimuth, and after each complete revolution, we will nudge it slightly to point upwards at increasingly steeper angles. At the same time, we will continually capture the measured distance data to the target. When the scan is complete we will have a data set called a point cloud that represents the distance from the LIDAR to every point in the room and that’s just perfect for rendering on an Oculus Rift VR headset. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, we have a few mechanical problems to solve first.

If you’ve seen the press hype about 3D printed firearms you might be surprised to hear me express 3D printer disappointment, and In fact, you might have expected a 3D printer to be my perfect “drawing board to the physical word” prototyping tool. But, I’d say the reality is rather different. It’s hard to say if my scepticism comes from the PLA filament unravelling, the shrinkage leaving questionable tolerances, the poor finish, or the print times in excess of 12 hours. Either way, I’m unconvinced by the results of consumer and light industrial 3D printers. So, we’ll build our LIDAR parts old school with a manual lathe and mill. (There is just one niggling point and very important points that we will come to later where we use a 3D printer to enable everything!) I should also add that my industrial design colleagues producing beautiful flowing curved case works may have a very different opinion to myself. For them, 3D printing comes into its own.

We’ve also got an electrical wiring problem to solve, and that’s because we need to get power and data to our range finder without our wires getting twisted. We’ve got three obvious choices on how to do this; we can spin 360 degrees and then unwind the wires by spinning the other way, or we can build a complicated inductive power system with RF\optical to carry data (no wires to twist), or we can use a slip ring (a slip ring works just like the brushes on an electrical motor). The first solution is ugly and will slow the scan down with all the stopping and starting. The second solution sounds robust, but it’s a design exercise in itself that adds unnecessary burden to our budget. Ideally, we’d rather not have that for a prototype. The third solution is quick, very low cost, but will eventually fail as the slip ring brushes degrade. None the less, even a low-end slip ring is rated 5,000,000 revolutions, which is more than enough for our prototype.

Our slip ring will need to fit through the body of a rotating shaft, and it needs to be mounted with screws that clamp the slip ring flange onto the shaft. There isn’t anything we can do to change the slip ring dimensions, so follow it through and the shaft diameter comes in at around 22mm. We’ll need the shaft to fit through bearings, and we want the shaft to rotate. We’ll do that with a timing belt and timing gear around the shaft.

Further Reading

Food for Thought: Food Industry Innovation 2019

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

4th April 2019

6 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering » Page 3

Food Industry Innovation 2019 was both stimulating and thought provoking. Organised by Innovate UK, it was a mixture of presentations, audience polls, pitch sessions and exhibitions by start-ups, and covered everything from novel food science and manufacturing engineering through to the future of supply and distribution. Some themes kept recurring throughout the day, both from presenters and audience polls, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these.

A poll covering top trends in food product development had ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘plant-based/vegan foods’, ‘free from foods’ and ‘personalised food/nutrition’ in top place, in that order.

Sustainable Packaging

It’s hardly surprising that sustainable packaging is top of the agenda, with a newly found mass consumer awareness of the environmental crisis that waste plastic has created. There’s a lot of interest in alternative (e.g. bio-degradable) plastics. In their favour they would permit a ‘business as usual’ approach, allowing manufacturers to continue to use the same volume of plastic packaging but making disposal more practical. However, plastics that retain all their functionality while storing food or drink while degrading rapidly and safely in the environment are still a good way off.

Take cPPA for example, which has been known for decades to depolymerise rapidly on demand. The trick that is still being perfected is how to prevent it from degrading while still in use, under the full range of environmental conditions. Other work is looking at catalytic methods to rapidly break down plastics that are in common use already, such as PET. And even when the science has provided the techniques that we need, actually recycling or composting the current volumes of plastic packaging would require a massive change to the current localised, ad hoc approach to recycling that we have in the UK.

It was somewhat alarming to hear one supermarket representative make an appeal for other industries to take the hit on reducing packaging waste. The argument was that the hygiene requirements in the food industry gave them a greater justification to use packaging than other industries, and holding up the toy industry as an example of a less worthy case. I don’t know about you, but I’d estimate that food packaging makes up at least 90% of the waste in my recycle bin each week.

The two most obvious approaches that can be implemented in the short term are reducing the use of plastic packaging at source and encouraging greater return of plastic packaging by consumers for reuse or recycling. Both of these require government intervention to push the problem back on the companies that are putting the plastic on to the market, for example by taxing or regulating the use of disposable plastic, or by encouraging reuse and recycling by enforcing deposit-return schemes. It is good to see that the government is starting to take action on the latter.

Diet-Driven Foods

To see the development of plant-based foods rated by the audience as the second most important trend was music to my ears. Having lived a meat-free diet for almost thirty years, seeing the dramatic rise in interest in plant-based and vegan diets in the past year or so has been rather astonishing. Whereas the traditional motivation for non-meat diets came from animal welfare concerns, it seems that the current trend is being driven by awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming. Whereas in the past the vegan consumer has been served exclusively by niche suppliers, the mainstream food industry has finally engaged with this market. I would expect this to create a welcome increase in innovation in the area, due to the size of research budgets at the disposal of the mainstream producers and the untapped potential in the market. If you’re reading this, someone please come up with a vegan cheese that really tastes like mature cheddar!

Somewhat related to the former topic is the rise in provision of ‘free from’ ranges of food. If vegetarians and vegans have had a hard time in the past finding acceptable food, people with dietary intolerances have had at least as great a struggle. It’s great news that ‘free from’ is also gradually moving into the mainstream, and likewise the engagement by the major manufacturers must aid rapid innovation leading to more appealing products and greater choice.

Personalised Nutrition

At fourth place in this list of trends was personalised food/nutrition. There was an interesting mix of ideas about what this might mean. From the online shopping perspective, this could be just increasing the intelligence of the virtual grocer that helps suggest foods that you might like; eventually, it might be a match for the real local grocers we used to have before the supermarkets took over. A proponent of wearables technology suggested that fitness trackers and smartphones could be making dietary suggestions based on activity or other deductions about lifestyle, and then ordering appropriate groceries or meals for you. Something like: “no pizza for you this evening as I see you skipped your scheduled run”. Into this mix was added the idea of using genetic profiling to identify foods that might be compatible, or not, with a particular individual.

Another section of the conference was looking at technologies that might have the biggest impact on manufacturing efficiency. While many of the identified technologies were predictable: automation, AI, big data, robotics, blockchain, some of the applications were interesting.

Supply Chain Traceability

A theme that caught my attention was traceability in the supply chain. I hadn’t realised what a huge issue tracking the provenance of food as it passes through the complex supply chain is. If I purchase some organic tomato soup, someone needs to be able to check that the original tomatoes were organic, that the same tomatoes made it to the soup factory, and through the factory’s many processes, that the resulting soup made it to the warehouse, and finally to the supermarket shelf. Blockchain technology was presented as the foundation for creating a distributed ledger that allowed multiple parties to track to provenance and progress of an item as it passed through the supply chain. In addition to the basic benefits of provenance checking, health and safety benefits due to the ability to organise swift and accurate product recalls were highlighted.

This is a really useful deployment of modern technology to an old problem. Its principal limitation is of course that you are only really following the provenance of the label that was attached to the tomatoes in the example used or the box they were in. You’d currently have no way of knowing if they were switched out for alternative products bearing the original labelling. Embedding RFID tags into our food is clearly a non-starter, so further technology would be needed to provide non-invasive scanning of food items to backup their provenance claims. There are plenty of chemical and optical detection solutions in existence to identify types of fruit (a Granny Smith from a Golden Delicious), or ripeness or damage to items. To detect pesticide residues on supposedly organic products, or prove that the country or region of origin is as claimed on the label, we’d need sophisticated sensing technology in small packages and at low cost – this appears to be coming, but we’re not there yet.

Visions of the Future

A lot of the drive for automation is coming from the desire for increased productivity, and the grandest vision presented painted a picture of a field-to-table manufacturing and supply chain that had no human involvement at all, with robotic harvesting, shipping, sorting, warehousing and delivery, all driven by vast amounts of AI. On the plus side, this would certainly be great for productivity. It would also allow for a great degree of customisation and tailoring to each end customer, with the economies of scale and sophistication needed to deliver bespoke products on demand. And perhaps this technology would be an enabler for another trend – the growth in desire for artisan foods. There’s a move to the simplicity of ‘homemade’ values and away from mass-market, highly processed foods. What’s needed to support this are ways of making artisan goods without the labour intensive processes traditionally required. Proponents of robotics and AI would claim to have the answer.

On the other hand, food isn’t just another consumer product. We have a much more basic, emotional connection with food than anything else we buy. Millions of years of evolution have given us a sensory system that allow us to assess, judge and select the food we eat. Fresh food is a complete multi-sensory experience – we can see it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it, and sometimes even hear it. Boxing in a person behind a computer screen so that purchasing decisions are made using only one sense – our eyesight – surely sanitises and diminishes the experience. Can technology ever replace the human experience of the classic fresh food market? There’s a challenge.

Food Industry Innovation 2019 was both stimulating and thought provoking. Organised by Innovate UK, it was a mixture of presentations, audience polls, pitch sessions and exhibitions by start-ups, and covered everything from novel food science and manufacturing engineering through to the future of supply and distribution. Some themes kept recurring throughout the day, both from presenters and audience polls, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these.

A poll covering top trends in food product development had ‘sustainable packaging’, ‘plant-based/vegan foods’, ‘free from foods’ and ‘personalised food/nutrition’ in top place, in that order.

Sustainable Packaging

It’s hardly surprising that sustainable packaging is top of the agenda, with a newly found mass consumer awareness of the environmental crisis that waste plastic has created. There’s a lot of interest in alternative (e.g. bio-degradable) plastics. In their favour they would permit a ‘business as usual’ approach, allowing manufacturers to continue to use the same volume of plastic packaging but making disposal more practical. However, plastics that retain all their functionality while storing food or drink while degrading rapidly and safely in the environment are still a good way off.

Take cPPA for example, which has been known for decades to depolymerise rapidly on demand. The trick that is still being perfected is how to prevent it from degrading while still in use, under the full range of environmental conditions. Other work is looking at catalytic methods to rapidly break down plastics that are in common use already, such as PET. And even when the science has provided the techniques that we need, actually recycling or composting the current volumes of plastic packaging would require a massive change to the current localised, ad hoc approach to recycling that we have in the UK.

It was somewhat alarming to hear one supermarket representative make an appeal for other industries to take the hit on reducing packaging waste. The argument was that the hygiene requirements in the food industry gave them a greater justification to use packaging than other industries, and holding up the toy industry as an example of a less worthy case. I don’t know about you, but I’d estimate that food packaging makes up at least 90% of the waste in my recycle bin each week.

The two most obvious approaches that can be implemented in the short term are reducing the use of plastic packaging at source and encouraging greater return of plastic packaging by consumers for reuse or recycling. Both of these require government intervention to push the problem back on the companies that are putting the plastic on to the market, for example by taxing or regulating the use of disposable plastic, or by encouraging reuse and recycling by enforcing deposit-return schemes. It is good to see that the government is starting to take action on the latter.

Diet-Driven Foods

To see the development of plant-based foods rated by the audience as the second most important trend was music to my ears. Having lived a meat-free diet for almost thirty years, seeing the dramatic rise in interest in plant-based and vegan diets in the past year or so has been rather astonishing. Whereas the traditional motivation for non-meat diets came from animal welfare concerns, it seems that the current trend is being driven by awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming. Whereas in the past the vegan consumer has been served exclusively by niche suppliers, the mainstream food industry has finally engaged with this market. I would expect this to create a welcome increase in innovation in the area, due to the size of research budgets at the disposal of the mainstream producers and the untapped potential in the market. If you’re reading this, someone please come up with a vegan cheese that really tastes like mature cheddar!

Somewhat related to the former topic is the rise in provision of ‘free from’ ranges of food. If vegetarians and vegans have had a hard time in the past finding acceptable food, people with dietary intolerances have had at least as great a struggle. It’s great news that ‘free from’ is also gradually moving into the mainstream, and likewise the engagement by the major manufacturers must aid rapid innovation leading to more appealing products and greater choice.

Personalised Nutrition

At fourth place in this list of trends was personalised food/nutrition. There was an interesting mix of ideas about what this might mean. From the online shopping perspective, this could be just increasing the intelligence of the virtual grocer that helps suggest foods that you might like; eventually, it might be a match for the real local grocers we used to have before the supermarkets took over. A proponent of wearables technology suggested that fitness trackers and smartphones could be making dietary suggestions based on activity or other deductions about lifestyle, and then ordering appropriate groceries or meals for you. Something like: “no pizza for you this evening as I see you skipped your scheduled run”. Into this mix was added the idea of using genetic profiling to identify foods that might be compatible, or not, with a particular individual.

Another section of the conference was looking at technologies that might have the biggest impact on manufacturing efficiency. While many of the identified technologies were predictable: automation, AI, big data, robotics, blockchain, some of the applications were interesting.

Supply Chain Traceability

A theme that caught my attention was traceability in the supply chain. I hadn’t realised what a huge issue tracking the provenance of food as it passes through the complex supply chain is. If I purchase some organic tomato soup, someone needs to be able to check that the original tomatoes were organic, that the same tomatoes made it to the soup factory, and through the factory’s many processes, that the resulting soup made it to the warehouse, and finally to the supermarket shelf. Blockchain technology was presented as the foundation for creating a distributed ledger that allowed multiple parties to track to provenance and progress of an item as it passed through the supply chain. In addition to the basic benefits of provenance checking, health and safety benefits due to the ability to organise swift and accurate product recalls were highlighted.

This is a really useful deployment of modern technology to an old problem. Its principal limitation is of course that you are only really following the provenance of the label that was attached to the tomatoes in the example used or the box they were in. You’d currently have no way of knowing if they were switched out for alternative products bearing the original labelling. Embedding RFID tags into our food is clearly a non-starter, so further technology would be needed to provide non-invasive scanning of food items to backup their provenance claims. There are plenty of chemical and optical detection solutions in existence to identify types of fruit (a Granny Smith from a Golden Delicious), or ripeness or damage to items. To detect pesticide residues on supposedly organic products, or prove that the country or region of origin is as claimed on the label, we’d need sophisticated sensing technology in small packages and at low cost – this appears to be coming, but we’re not there yet.

Visions of the Future

A lot of the drive for automation is coming from the desire for increased productivity, and the grandest vision presented painted a picture of a field-to-table manufacturing and supply chain that had no human involvement at all, with robotic harvesting, shipping, sorting, warehousing and delivery, all driven by vast amounts of AI. On the plus side, this would certainly be great for productivity. It would also allow for a great degree of customisation and tailoring to each end customer, with the economies of scale and sophistication needed to deliver bespoke products on demand. And perhaps this technology would be an enabler for another trend – the growth in desire for artisan foods. There’s a move to the simplicity of ‘home made’ values and away from mass-market, highly processed foods. What’s needed to support this are ways of making artisan goods without the labour intensive processes traditionally required. Proponents of robotics and AI would claim to have the answer.

On the other hand, food isn’t just another consumer product. We have a much more basic, emotional connection with food than anything else we buy. Millions of years of evolution have given us a sensory system that allow us to assess, judge and select the food we eat. Fresh food is a complete multi-sensory experience – we can see it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it, and sometimes even hear it. Boxing in a person behind a computer screen so that purchasing decisions are made using only one sense – our eyesight – surely sanitises and diminishes the experience. Can technology ever replace the human experience of the classic fresh food market? There’s a challenge.

Further Reading

Future mobility, electric cars, inner city congestion

What is the Future of Mobility?

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

13th March 2019

Home » Insights » Engineering » Page 3

Recently, I found myself on the Shell booth at the MOVE 2019 event in London. The event was all about the future of mobility, so there was an eclectic mix of talks and exhibits on car sharing, electric cars, charging infrastructures, cycling schemes, autonomous taxis, smart parking and the like.

Anyway, I was speaking to a person who was canvassing for opinions on future mobility, and how we might meet our commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. She summarised my answer to the latter as “just do it”, as I had suggested making progress was very much about political will and vision, and rather less about enabling technology.

The Problem

The solutions to many of the problems in this space need big, bold, joined up thinking that market forces alone will not deliver. In many cases, the supporting technology needed exists or we know how to create it, such as digital platforms for vehicle sharing or parking management, roadside charging facilities for overnight charging of electric cars, light rail systems, advanced traffic management systems and a low-carbon electricity infrastructure that supports mass charging of electric cars. What is definitely in short supply is the vision to imagine what an effective, efficient and integrated low-carbon transport system would look like in any given city, and the political will (and cash) to encourage its rollout.

It’s always striking to see how easy it is to get around London without a car, given that a bus (with a dedicated lane), tube or DLR train is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Simply discouraging car use doesn’t seem unreasonable in that environment. In the city where I live, cars clog up almost every main road, and for the most part, public transport alternatives are insufficiently attractive. The train is fine if you are travelling from a distance, but the regular buses and park and ride buses all share the same clogged up roads as the cars. The city is too dense to allow for any meaningful widening of the roads. Indeed bus travel has got worse due to the expansion of cycle lanes, which have eaten into the few short stretches of roadway dedicated to buses. A solution to this is going to require some radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. Perhaps closing some major roads to through traffic altogether and installing light rail or dedicated bus lanes?

Parking is a nightmare, with many streets clogged with cars circulating, trying to find a parking space that simply doesn’t exist. Simply making parking more and more expensive isn’t fixing this problem. Much of the housing in the city centre comprises narrow streets of terraced houses, with very limited on-street parking. If I lived in one of these houses and wanted to buy an electric car, I’d want to know that there was a charging point close by my house, and that the space next to it wasn’t occupied by a petrol or diesel vehicle.

The Solutions

The push towards autonomous cars is mostly about enabling car sharing or ‘cars on demand’, and as such may have a very positive impact on our street parking issue. However autonomous cars certainly won’t help our rush hour traffic congestion because the same number of people will be in the same number of cars, albeit not in the driving seat. They might even make the situation worse, as people abandon fuel- and traffic-efficient buses and trains for the privacy of a temporarily hired car.

It was interesting, and reassuring, to hear from Shell about their work with other major players on solutions to some of these problems. Listening to a set of partners with sufficient scale and impact to make a difference, the holistic solutions discussed offered to join up electricity generation from renewables, improved electricity distribution and e-car charging systems, and pushed for the use of e-car batteries that are plugged into the network to assist with demand smoothing.

As a technologist, I went to the show looking for examples of how new tech was going to drive us to meet our future mobility needs and climate change goals. For the most part, I came away thinking about the policy, business and market problems that need to be solved first, rather than the technology.

By the way, the most thought-provoking tech at the show was an interesting application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) from WaveSense. Their system builds a reference map of the terrain underneath the roadway, using the GPR returns to map the subsurface features. A vehicle equipped with a GPR can use the sensor and its reference map to provide improved positional accuracy than a standalone GPS, or can assist with location when GPS is degraded in built-up areas. It’s a fascinating example of innovation through technology transfer across markets.

Also worthy of note is system from NIRA Dynamics, which can detect road surface conditions in real-time by using standard telematics equipment. The NIRA solution collects data from a cohort of telematics-enabled vehicles, applying custom fusion algorithms to build up a real-time picture of the roughness and friction of the road surface. The friction maps can be passed back to the vehicles, providing alerts on potential danger areas and reducing the potential for accidents.

These examples may not open the door to the brave new world of future mobility, but both offered real improvements to issues facing us in the here and now.

Recently, I found myself on the Shell booth at the MOVE 2019 event in London. The event was all about the future of mobility, so there was an eclectic mix of talks and exhibits on car sharing, electric cars, charging infrastructures, cycling schemes, autonomous taxis, smart parking and the like.

Anyway, I was speaking to a person who was canvassing for opinions on future mobility, and how we might meet our commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. She summarised my answer to the latter as “just do it”, as I had suggested making progress was very much about political will and vision, and rather less about enabling technology.

The solutions to many of the problems in this space need big, bold, joined up thinking that market forces alone will not deliver. In many cases, the supporting technology needed exists or we know how to create it, such as digital platforms for vehicle sharing or parking management, roadside charging facilities for overnight charging of electric cars, light rail systems, advanced traffic management systems and a low-carbon electricity infrastructure that supports mass charging of electric cars. What is definitely in short supply is the vision to imagine what an effective, efficient and integrated low-carbon transport system would look like in any given city, and the political will (and cash) to encourage its rollout.

It’s always striking to see how easy it is to get around London without a car, given that a bus (with a dedicated lane), tube or DLR train is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Simply discouraging car use doesn’t seem unreasonable in that environment. In the city where I live, cars clog up almost every main road, and for the most part, public transport alternatives are insufficiently attractive. The train is fine if you are travelling from a distance, but the regular buses and park and ride buses all share the same clogged up roads as the cars. The city is too dense to allow for any meaningful widening of the roads. Indeed bus travel has got worse due to the expansion of cycle lanes, which have eaten into the few short stretches of roadway dedicated to buses. A solution to this is going to require some radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. Perhaps closing some major roads to through traffic altogether and installing light rail or dedicated bus lanes?

Parking is a nightmare, with many streets clogged with cars circulating, trying to find a parking space that simply doesn’t exist. Simply making parking more and more expensive isn’t fixing this problem. Much of the housing in the city centre comprises narrow streets of terraced houses, with very limited on-street parking. If I lived in one of these houses and wanted to buy an electric car, I’d want to know that there was a charging point close by my house, and that the space next to it wasn’t occupied by a petrol or diesel vehicle.

The push towards autonomous cars is mostly about enabling car sharing or ‘cars on demand’, and as such may have a very positive impact on our street parking issue. However autonomous cars certainly won’t help our rush hour traffic congestion because the same number of people will be in the same number of cars, albeit not in the driving seat. They might even make the situation worse, as people abandon fuel- and traffic-efficient buses and trains for the privacy of a temporarily hired car.

It was interesting, and reassuring, to hear from Shell about their work with other major players on solutions to some of these problems. Listening to a set of partners with sufficient scale and impact to make a difference, the holistic solutions discussed offered to join up electricity generation from renewables, improved electricity distribution and e-car charging systems, and pushed for the use of e-car batteries that are plugged into the network to assist with demand smoothing.

As a technologist, I went to the show looking for examples of how new tech was going to drive us to meet our future mobility needs and climate change goals. For the most part, I came away thinking about the policy, business and market problems that need to be solved first, rather than the technology.

By the way, the most thought-provoking tech at the show was an interesting application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) from WaveSense. Their system builds a reference map of the terrain underneath the roadway, using the GPR returns to map the subsurface features. A vehicle equipped with a GPR can use the sensor and its reference map to provide improved positional accuracy than a standalone GPS, or can assist with location when GPS is degraded in built-up areas. It’s a fascinating example of innovation through technology transfer across markets.

Also worthy of note is system from NIRA Dynamics, which can detect road surface conditions in real-time by using standard telematics equipment. The NIRA solution collects data from a cohort of telematics-enabled vehicles, applying custom fusion algorithms to build up a real-time picture of the roughness and friction of the road surface. The friction maps can be passed back to the vehicles, providing alerts on potential danger areas and reducing the potential for accidents.

These examples may not open the door to the brave new world of future mobility, but both offered real improvements to issues facing us in the here and now.

Further Reading

Internet of things, plextek

IoT Security in a Fragmented Marketplace

Rob Karplinski - Project Engineer, Embedded Systems

By: Rob Karpinski
Project Engineer, Embedded Systems

22nd March 2018

Home » Insights » Engineering » Page 3

Since the rise of IoT, companies and manufacturers both large and small have rushed to try and capitalise on this growing technology and, arguably, there are now a lot of competing communication and connection methods for IoT products out there.

A lot of these are from the Eastern marketplace and are commonly produced by China to offer consumers a “cheap” alternative to Western products, provided by companies like Apple, Philips or Hewlett Packard.

This raises a couple of security concerns as consumers now face a commercial marketplace with a lot of similar looking products that all vaguely do the same thing but connect to the internet in different ways. A driving force in the popularity of Chinese products is their price, after all, why would you pay £179 for a Nest Cam Outdoor when you can get a cheaper Xiongmai camera module for a fraction of the price?

The Mirai Botnet

One example of unsecured IoT devices being exploited was the Mirai botnet scandal in 2016. To gain a competitive advantage in the computer game, Minecraft three college students unwittingly unleashed a botnet that spread across poorly secured IoT devices and wireless routers, slowing down or stopping completely internet access for nearly the entire eastern United States. The malware infiltrated a dozen different IoT devices (including CCTV cameras and digital video recorders) by scanning the internet for connected technology that still used the manufacturers’ default security setting. Researchers later determined that it infected between 200,000 and 300,000 devices overall (including Xiongmai products, initiating a product recall) – the largest distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) ever launched.

The “S” in IoT stands for Security

Due to the highly networked nature of Internet of Things devices and the rising privacy concerns over how device data is being used (or misused) in the profiling and targeting of people, ensuring a secure IoT device has never been more important for tech product companies that want to be perceived as trusted and innovative market leaders.

Playing an active part in this industry myself (both as an engineer and consumer of tech), I believe engineers should always stay focused on these technical, logical, and ethical challenges when evolving the use of this internet-connected technology. As a consumer, the majority of IoT devices are secure but always ensure you update your devices with the latest firmware and software updates.

Since the rise of IoT, companies and manufacturers both large and small have rushed to try and capitalise on this growing technology and, arguably, there are now a lot of competing communication and connection methods for IoT products out there.

A lot of these are from the Eastern marketplace and are commonly produced by China to offer consumers a “cheap” alternative to Western products, provided by companies like Apple, Philips or Hewlett Packard.

This raises a couple of security concerns as consumers now face a commercial marketplace with a lot of similar looking products that all vaguely do the same thing but connect to the internet in different ways. A driving force in the popularity of Chinese products is their price, after all, why would you pay £179 for a Nest Cam Outdoor when you can get a cheaper Xiongmai camera module for a fraction of the price?

The Mirai Botnet

One example of unsecured IoT devices being exploited was the Mirai botnet scandal in 2016. To gain a competitive advantage in the computer game, Minecraft three college students unwittingly unleashed a botnet that spread across poorly secured IoT devices and wireless routers, slowing down or stopping completely internet access for nearly the entire eastern United States. The malware infiltrated a dozen different IoT devices (including CCTV cameras and digital video recorders) by scanning the internet for connected technology that still used the manufacturers’ default security setting. Researchers later determined that it infected between 200,000 and 300,000 devices overall (including Xiongmai products, initiating a product recall) – the largest distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) ever launched.

The “S” in IoT stands for Security

Due to the highly networked nature of Internet of Things devices and the rising privacy concerns over how device data is being used (or misused) in the profiling and targeting of people, ensuring a secure IoT device has never been more important for tech product companies that want to be perceived as trusted and innovative market leaders.

Playing an active part in this industry myself (both as an engineer and consumer of tech), I believe engineers should always stay focused on these technical, logical, and ethical challenges when evolving the use of this internet-connected technology. As a consumer, the majority of IoT devices are secure but always ensure you update your devices with the latest firmware and software updates.

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Further Reading