In Petersboro, the machines drive themselves

PETERSBORO – Hidden in the foothills of rural Cache Valley something very high tech is going on. The machines are running themselves. Some of these machines are as large as a small house, even. The masterminds behind the technology work at Autonomous Solutions, Inc. in Petersboro.

Started as an offshoot of Utah State University in 2000, the robotics company develops solutions for the military, agriculture, mining operations, and now for the automotive industry. They specialize in turning some of the monotonous, and potentially dangerous, work of operating machinery over to remote control or even to robots.

The company has been working with the Ford Motor Company to install their robotics in fresh-off-the-factory-floor Ford Transit Vans. Before going to market, the vehicles are subjected to a rigorous test track that attempts to simulate what the vehicles might go through during their product lifetime. Autonomous Solutions is installing their robotics into the vehicles so they can go through the test track without a human behind the wheel. Marketing Director Dru Brown says Ford wanted to automate the test track for two important reasons.

“Primarily the safety to the drivers,” Brown explains. “A lot of the durability testing that they do is pretty rigorous. Test drivers are regulated to a short shift, only an hour or two because of how rough the course is. They want to remove the drivers out of the roughest test tracks and then run those robotically.”

The other reason for automating the process is for exactness.

“The drivers have a tendency to lift off the acceleration so they are not running at the exact speed that they want them to, to brace themselves for the test track. So not only to preserve their safety but also to improve the accuracy and validity of the durability test.”

At a small track adjacent to the company’s facility, a driverless Ford Fusion was equipped with the robotic technology and seamlessly drove up and down the track, making turns, accelerating and braking as it followed a predetermined route.

“We’ve been working with them for the past three years with this technology to where they feel comfortable using it on their test models,” Brown continues.

The vehicle is equipped with an on board computer, GPS unit, radio receiver and hydraulic and mechanical actuators that control gears, breaks, steering and acceleration.

“It typically takes one of our engineers eight hours to convert a factory model into an autonomous vehicle,” Brown explains. “That is significantly faster than the industry standard.”

Besides the new contract with Ford Motor Company, Autonomous Solutions also develops remote or robotic control for mining operations as far away as South Africa. Two large mining trucks as large as a small house sit on their lot along with several tractors and other vehicles, all equipped with various forms of remote control sensing that could either limit or completely eliminate a person behind the wheel.

The company also specializes in building robots that can detect bombs under vehicles and robots that can be used in combat zones. One bomb robot, named Chaos, is actively sold around the country to bomb squads and its arm is strong enough to pull a soldier out of a foxhole.

Brown says that his industry has huge growth potential.

“Pretty much anything with wheels and a motor, we can automate that.”

But he is quick to add that it is far more complicated when considering automated cars for the average consumer to drive to work.

“There are a lot of concerns out there. Say you have a vehicle that is driving autonomously down the highway. Something goes wrong and you hit another vehicle. Who’s liable for that? Is it the manufacturer of the robotics? Is it the manufacturer of the automobile? Is it the person driving the car? Who is responsible? So there are a lot of questions that we have to answer before autonomous vehicles can get on the road and into consumer’s hands.”

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