I recently accompanied a Financial Times film crew and reporter to the Transport Systems Catapult ‘Imovation Centre’, one of seven Government-backed technology innovation centres, to witness the early-stage British ideas that are poised to revolutionise future transport.
The Catapult’s huge ‘simulation cinemas’ sprang to life and we were momentarily transported into a future in which rail operators can digitally ‘predict’ future events, air traffic control centres can ‘zoom in’ on aircraft anywhere in the world in real-time, and the ‘Internet of Things’ connects entire roads and rail networks into single, synchronised transport ecosystems.
We had come to see some of the early-stage innovations that could benefit from a Catapult plan to create the world’s first ‘intelligent mobility investment fund’, which will raise £50-100 million to help fledging British technologies overcome their birth pangs and achieve major growth.
The journalist sat, mesmerised, as a former Esso analyst described how his company Mole Solutions was testing a pioneering system that could reduce global congestion using magnetic fields to transport freight on driverless capsules across high-speed underground pipelines.
We then witnessed a demonstration of revolutionary technology that is allowing transport operators to use live analysis of social media, traffic and weather data to ‘predict’ future transport problems and influence commuter behaviour so that they never happen.
And PIE Mapping showed how they are building the first real-time ‘roadmap’ of Britain, pooling live data from Highways Agencies, transport operators and Local Authorities to build personalised route maps incorporating everything from imminent road closures to local safety hazards.
We were invited to imagine a future in which nobody has to buy a car or book a cab as every mode of transport is combined into pick-and-mix ‘shared fleets’ and every journey is like an all-in-one package holiday planned according to the weather, the best route and each person’s budget and preferred mode of transport.
Yet everywhere we heard the same sad story; inspiring entrepreneurs with brilliant solutions to the global problems from congestion to pollution who cannot get the investment they need to help their technology over the notorious ‘valley of death’ from lab to market.
It is a case of history repeating itself all over again, with some of the world’s greatest technologies, including the LCD TV screen, developed in Britain but commercialised abroad.
Yet here we saw a glimpse of how the Catapult is beginning to change this.
Paul Zanelli, the Chief Technology Officer, outlined how the Catapult’s collaborating with technology giants and SMEs to take over 100 cutting-edge innovations from drawing board to global market.
The future market in ‘intelligent mobility’ will harness inventions in everything from robotics to ‘Big Data’ to transform transport, bringing previously separate market sectors to form what could be a £900 billion global market. And the Catapult is providing the only truly independent laboratory in Britain that can bring together SMEs, academics, and technology giants fragmented among different market sectors to encourage the cross-pollination of ideas across every sphere of the economy.
It is a vision that has the potential not only to transform transport but to produce an industrial rebirth across Britain.
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