MENDON, Cache County — Take a drive outside this quiet and tidy Cache Valley town and you might come across a scene, amid the hayfields and cow pastures, that looks straight out of a dystopian science fiction film.
Giant, track-driven tractors roll through the foothills, SUVs and pickup trucks covered in techy-looking gadgets ply figure-eight test tracks while wee vehicles smaller than golf carts meander the parking lot of an innocuous, sheet metal-clad office structure.
Thing is, all of these vehicles are unoccupied and nary a human can be seen.
Welcome to the headquarters and proving grounds of Autonomous Solutions Inc., or ASI. The Utah-based company, started as a Utah State University research spinoff effort by Mel Torrie some 17 years ago, has quietly carved out a niche in the realm of driverless vehicle technology.
And while tech behemoths like Uber and Google have dominated headlines for their efforts to put driverless passenger cars on the roads, ASI has focused on automating the driving for vehicles that mostly stay off the pavement.
ASI was birthed via a project that Torrie, a Utah State mechanical engineering major, was working on with farm implement manufacturer John Deere. But it was an early contract with the U.S. Department of Defense that seeded the company’s development of a driverless technology “kit,” said Matt Nielsen, ASI marketing director.
“Military trainers had been, for years, using personnel to drive vehicles through test ranges, dragging a sled behind them for target practice for jet fighters,” Nielsen said. “It’s not hard to understand why they were looking for a new method that got the drivers out of those vehicles.”
ASI successfully automated the driving for those operations (the systems are still in use at Luke and Nellis Air Force bases) and the technology piqued the interest of auto manufacturers, particularly for the durability testing the companies do on new models.
This driving takes place on terrain that is specifically designed to bash and batter their products, and while the data carmakers gather from the testing leads to safer and more durable vehicles, the test drivers have proven less resilient.
“One test in particular, the ditch twist used to test the chassis of vehicles, has been particularly rough on the test drivers,” Nielsen said. “Just one day of testing, three drivers required hospitalization.
“Taking humans out of those situations has definitely enhanced safety.”
The technology ASI developed for the military and auto manufacturers enables the vehicles to follow a predetermined “map” or course that’s carefully plotted out and kept on track by a variety of external inputs, such as global positioning data, visual data gathered by cameras and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) that uses laser pulses to generate highly accurate three-dimensional images.
One of the advantages to how ASI is developing its technology is the ability for customers to integrate operations of multiple simultaneously operating driverless vehicles. Its Mobius system can allow a single person to oversee 50 vehicles in continuous, 24-hour operation. And it can function in a mixed-traffic environment that includes both autonomous and human-powered vehicles.
This ability makes the ASI driverless kit particularly well-suited to large-scale industrial operations like agriculture and mining.
A year ago, the company debuted an autonomous concept tractor, in collaboration with CNH Industrial. Nielsen said the response was overwhelmingly positive, particularly for industries that have a history of being a little resilient to adopting new technology.
“Agriculture is a realm where you have people, in some cases, that have literally worked the same land for generations, so there’s a lot of cemented habits and expectations in these areas,” Nielsen said. “But there was a lot of buzz and excitement when the concept vehicle was shown to the industry.”
A key element in ASI’s ongoing forays into autonomous technologies is creating systems that can recognize changing environments and “learn” from the data gathered in actual use. That effort will be aided by another Department of Defense grant — ASI’s third — that the company announced in July to “further apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve the mobility and behavior of autonomous vehicles in challenging environments.”
Torrie, ASI's founder and CEO, said in a statement that the funding will allow the company to continue to remain at the cutting edge of autonomous technology.
“In order for us to maintain our leadership in the unmanned vehicle space we must continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Torrie said. “These programs will ensure that we continue to offer our customers and partners the most advanced, safe and simple autonomous solutions.”
Torrie, a Canadian who fell in love with Utah and remained in the state after graduating from USU, continues to maintain strong ties with his alma mater both as a research partner and talent source.
Regan Zane is a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and founder and director of USU's Center for Sustainable Electrified Transportation, or SELECT, and Power Electronics Lab.
Zane said Torrie and his ASI team have been in integral part of the autonomous vehicle research and development happening at the school.
“ASI is a member of our SELECT research center where we have the electric vehicle roadway and test track,” Zane said. “We developed a shuttle vehicle that incorporates ASI equipment to automate the vehicles controls.”
Zane said his program is continuing to work with ASI while looking at the next markets for autonomous vehicle technology, including public transit and the consumer market. The company has had numerous USU students serve internships, Zane said, and it recently offered jobs to two recent Utah State grads.
Nielsen said the company, which is privately held, continues to grow and has some very promising near-term prospects for growth and expansion in mining, military, agriculture, security and proving ground automation.
“Our company’s vision for the next five to 10 years is maintaining our leadership in the commercial automation realm,” Nielsen said. “Nobody out there is doing quite what we do.”
And while ASI's success and leadership has been operating mostly off the radar, industry watchers have taken note. The company has earned numerous awards from Robotics Business Review, Inc. 5000, Edison Awards and others.
USTAR Executive Director Ivy Estabrooke said the company is a prototype of the kind of Utah-grown technology enterprise her agency works to support.
“ASI is an ideal example of the robust innovation ecosystem we're trying to create in Utah,” Estabrooke said. “They were spun out of Utah State University, they continue to collaborate on USTAR and federally funded projects at USU and with private sector partners, they are doing their own internal research and development focused on targeted industry needs and product market openings, and they are expanding and creating new jobs, which generates tax revenue, strengthens the local community and seeds opportunity for future growth.
“ASI illustrates the importance of technology-based economic development efforts in Utah.”