Hey Bot, I Have a Job for You!

Author: Achim Geiger

Feb 21, 2024

The Campus FreeCity project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV), will not only revolutionize landscaping, but could also improve inner-city traffic. The project focuses on researching a networked fleet of modular robot vehicles. DEKRA is responsible for ensuring the functional safety of the so-called CityBots and the legal classification in regard to road clearance.

Most mobility concepts for private transportation in Smart Cities generally exclude greenery, parks, as well as sports and leisure areas. But there is a need for smart concepts here, too, for example regarding landscape maintenance, street cleaning, and waste disposal. This is precisely what vehicle developer Edag Engineering in Fulda offers a solution for. In the not so distant future, entire fleets of swarm-intelligent and multifunctional robotic vehicles with electric drives will take over relevant tasks. As part of the research project “Campus FreeCity – Living lab to explore a networked fleet of modular robotic vehicles”, this vision can now become a partial reality. The project, funded by the BMDV with around 18 million euros since November 2021, aims to show how a holistic and networked mobility service can work in real life. The campus project is being developed and implemented by a consortium including the House of Logistics and Mobility (HOLM), Edag Engineering and T-Systems, Fulda University of Applied Sciences, and DEKRA Automobil GmbH.

The Eintracht Frankfurt stadium is the ideal living laboratory

“We must ensure that the robot vehicles are put into rotation safely,” DEKRA specialist Toni Lehmann explains.He, together with other DEKRA expertsin the field of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), functional safety, and cyber security, carries out and is responsible for the necessary tests with other DEKRA experts. Crucially, this involves the functional safety and current safety standards of the highly automated vehicles so that they can be approved for operation in the living lab. Beginning in March, the operating environment for the three-month test phase will be provided by the Bundesliga soccer club Eintracht Frankfurt. The Deutsche Bank Park – the club’s stadium grounds – is the perfect terrain for a living laboratory. Here, the robotic vehicles, operating under the name “Edag CityBots”, can be used to test scenarios that, would they take place in in public,would be limited due to the legal and regulatory framework. The use cases include a CityBot independently taking over the on-campus transportation of people with limited mobility, and another CityBot delivering to kiosks, disposing of waste and green cuttings, and watering green spaces.

The CityBots do not fit any template

DEKRA expert Lehmann and his team have already completed the route assessments for the living lab, documenting all gradients, slopes, passages, and evasion options on campus. They have also completed the CityBots’ initial assessment. Next up for the final phase is an expert opinion on the CityBots,documenting the current status quo and possible deviations. A tricky task, as Toni Lehmann and his colleagues from the ADAS / Functional Safety / Cyber Security department in Klettwitz admit. After all, the CityBots for the campus project are prototypes that do not fit any template. The protection of pedestrians and other road users is therefore just as much a part of the test plan as the lighting systems, including brake lights, indicators, and daytime running lights, as well as driving and braking behavior.

Highly automated driving focuses on object recognition

The heart of these robotic vehicles is the tensile module, which can accommodate a variety of different modules – for example a fully equipped bus cabin or work machine. The innovative vehicle’s technology is located at the front of the module, which requires neither a steering wheel nor pedals due to the high degree of automation. Object recognition is crucial for autonomous driving on campus. Hence, artificial intelligence (AI) is on board, combining the images from the stereoscopic camera with environmental data from sensor systems such as lidar and ultrasound. With these capabilities, the bots rank between SAE levels four and five of automated driving, as Toni Lehmann and his colleagues at DEKRA Digital Product Solutions report. The robot vehicles are not yet allowed to drive completely solo or without a high degree of control. They are supervised by a dispatcher and teleoperator working from a control center on campus whoare connected to the vehicles via the local 5G network. With the help of cameras and monitors, the supervisor is always aware of the vehicles’ activities.

Several fallback levels ensure safety in case of an emergency

What would a typical campus project scenario for a CityBot look like? One possibility would be for the vehicle, used as a bus shuttle, to receive a transportation order from a user via the app developed for this purpose. The bot drives at a moderate speed to the specified stop and picks up the passenger. The journey continues directly to the desired destination. If an unusual event occurs during a section of the journey – such as an obstacle on the road – the vehicle switches to the minimum risk state. It stops at a suitable point and sends the transportation order back to the control center. The teleoperator checks whether the vehicle can continue on its own or whether external navigation is necessary. In case of the latter, the operator steers the vehicle out of the danger zone via remote steering. If there is no solution, the lowest fallback level takes effect: A safety driver joins on site and either takes the robot out of operation using the emergency stop button or maneuvers it to the designated stopping place via remote control.

For the time being, the CityBots will stay in the garage for Eintracht’s home games

Soccer fans travelling to Eintracht Frankfurt’s home games will not get to see the CityBots on campus during the test phase. “Streams of fans would overwhelm the vehicles – in the end, the system would be more stationary than on the move,” says Toni Lehmann, limiting the CityBots’ range of activity for the moment. On normal days, however, regular traffic with pedestrians, cyclists, and smaller vehicles is definitely one of the everyday tasks that a bot has to deal with.