The Finnish city of Oulu, located only 230 kilometres from the Arctic Circle, boasts a long history of ICT innovation. Lately the city has made headlines for its booming startup scene and a groundbreaking 5G test network, 5GTN. Now this next generation mobile technology is being harnessed to power a unique Arctic research and test centre for autonomous vehicles and machinery.
“We are building a 5G-equipped test environment open to anyone working with autonomous vehicles,” explains Eero Tikkala, CEO of OuluZone, the new test area. “We haven’t found anything similar globally.”
The test area, expected to open in early 2018, is a joint effort between multiple partners including the University of Oulu, Oulu University of Applied Sciences and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. In addition to self-driving vehicles, the research will focus on autonomous working machinery, construction automation and robotics. This means visitors will need look out for bulldozers and heavy duty trucks cruising around without a driver.
But the caution will be worth it as the tests will tackle some of the major challenges with autonomous vehicles both in private and industrial use, weather being the crucial one.
“If the conditions are good and the weather nice, even with current technology a car can drive safely without a driver,” explains Rauno Heikkilä, professor at the University of Oulu. “But when you add ice and snow storms, the road markings disappear and there is still a long way to go for safety in these conditions.”
With over 160 days a year of guaranteed winter weather in Oulu, the researchers have found their ideal testing ground.
Driving test for cars
OuluZone was originally opened in 2010 as a motor sports and freetime activity centre. It already hosts tracks and technology for vehicle and tire testing, which will now be expanded for the automated trials and eventually equipped with a high-speed 5G network.
The test area will be open to universities, research institutes and companies to use, both from Finland and abroad. The University of Oulu is already preparing its first research projects:
“We are building a full road construction site which covers the whole site management process. We aren’t just testing individual working machines, but how different machines work together,” Heikkilä describes. “They will be constantly online with cloud services used to monitor and optimise their work on the fly.”
In cooperation with Finnish Transport Safety Agency Trafi, the university is also developing a winter driving examination for self-driving cars. In such icy conditions, parallel parking could prove stressful even for computers.
OuluZone is just one part Finland’s efforts to become a pioneering development environment for intelligent transport automation. The country already has some of the world’s most permissive legislation towards autonomous vehicles and several pilot projects are ongoing. One of the most significant ones is Aurora, a test ecosystem of closed and open roads for automated driving located in Finnish Lapland and OuluZone is a partner.
“Collaboration between many different organisations is a real strength in Finland,” says Heikkilä.
Collaboration also plays a key role across Finnish infrastructure industry which, according to Heikkilä, has the most advanced open data sharing format in the world. All parties are required to produce data in the same format, but anyone can also use it to develop new applications. These innovations could soon be tested at OuluZone:
“Ouluzone is a collaboration resource, which we can develop together to be a significant and renewed international asset. It will benefit everyone,” Heikkilä concludes.