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  • Writer's pictureSMART

How Prof Daniela Rus combines automation and mobility for a SMARTER world

Prof Daniela Rus with the self-driving vehicles at SMART


Daniela Rus loves Singapore. As this MIT professor sits down in her Frank O. Gehry-designed Boston office to talk about her research conducted in Singapore, her face starts to relax in a big smile.

Her story with Singapore started in the summer of 2010 when she made her first visit to the most futuristic and forward looking city in the world. "It was love at first sight," says the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. That summer, she came to Singapore to join the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) as the first Principal Investigator in resident for the Future of Urban Mobility Research Program. "In 2010, nobody was talking about autonomous driving.

We were pioneers in developing and deploying the first mobility on demand for people with self-driving golf buggies. And look where we stand today!" says Daniela. "Every single car maker is investing millions of dollars to advance autonomous driving. Singapore did not hesitate to provide us, at an early stage, with all the financial, logistical, and transportation resources to facilitate our work!" Since her first visit, Professor Rus, who spent several months in Singapore in 2010 and returns each year to follow up on the research, has been involved in leading revolutionary projects for the future of urban mobility.

"Our team worked tremendously hard on self-driving technologies and we are now presenting a wide range of different devices that allow autonomous and secure mobility. Our objective today is to make taking a driverless car for a spin as easy as programming a smartphone. A simple interaction between the human and machine will provide a transportation butler!"

Suite of self-driving vehicles

The first mobility devices were self-driving golf buggies. Two years ago, the self-driving golf buggies advanced to a point where the group decided to open them to the public in a trial that lasted one week at the Chinese Gardens. The idea was facilitated by Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA). Over the course of a week, more than 500 people booked rides from the comfort of their own homes, and came to the Chinese Gardens at the designated time and spot to experience mobility on demand with robots.

The test was conducted around winding paths trafficked by pedestrians, bicyclists, and the occasional monitor lizard. The experiments also tested an online booking system that enabled visitors to schedule pickups and drop-offs around the garden, automatically routing and redeploying the vehicles to accommodate all the requests. The public’s response was joyful and positive, and this brought renewed enthusiasm to take the technology to the next level to the team.

Since the Chinese Gardens public trial, the autonomous car group introduced a few other self-driving vehicles: a self-driving city car, and two personal mobility robots, a self-driving scooter and a self-driving wheelchair. Each of these electric vehicles was created in three phases. In the first phase, the vehicle was converted to drive-by-wire control which allows the computer to control the acceleration, braking, and steering of the car. In the second phase, the vehicle drives on each of the pathways in its operation environment and makes a map using features detected by the sensors.

In the third phase, the vehicle uses the map to compute a path from the customer’s pick-up point to the customer’s drop-off point and proceeds to drive along the path, localizing continuously and avoiding any other cars, people, and unexpected obstacles. The devices also used traffic data from LTA to model traffic patterns and to study the benefits of ride sharing systems.

Self-driving scooter

In April 2016, the team conducted a new test with the public at MIT. This time, they deployed a self-driving scooter that allowed users to use the same autonomy system indoors as well as outdoors. The trial included autonomous rides in the Infinite Corridor of MIT. A significant challenge in this type of space is localization, in other words knowing accurately the location of the robot in a long and plain corridor that does not have many distinctive features. The system proved to work very well also in this type of environment. This new trial completes the demonstration of a comprehensive uniform autonomous mobility system.

"One can easily see the usefulness of such a system between self-driving city cars, golf buggies and scooters," says Daniela Rus. "A mobility-impaired user could, for example, use a self-driving scooter to get down the hall and through the lobby of an apartment building, take a self-driving golf buggy across the building's parking lot, and pick up an autonomous car on the public roads to go to a similarly equipped amusement park or shopping centre."

Daniela Rus, a Class of 2002 MacArthur Fellow and member of the USA National Academy of Engineering, knows that each successful step into urban mobility will bring a positive contribution of Artificial Intelligence to the public. According to the World Health Organization, 3,400 people die each day in the world from traffic-related accidents. "It is a new space race," she says, convinced that autonomy is part of the solution to safe transportation.

Daniela Rus will continue visiting her beloved Singapore, where she particularly enjoys the food, the beautiful flowers, the kindness of its people, and the smartness of its youth. "Singapore is definitely a model in many fields," she concludes.


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