Hands on the future: Transparent armor and a fully autonomous car

Hands on the future: Transparent armor and a fully autonomous car

Summary: A driverless car that outpaces Google and transparent armor that can stop missiles: Those are two of the innovations Jason Hiner discovered this week in Israel.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

I've spent this week on a tour with researchers and engineers in Israel to learn about some technologies that will shape the future. Over the next couple weeks I'll be writing a series of articles on what I've discovered, but I thought I'd give you a glimpse of two really interesting things. Both of these technologies come from the research labs at Ben Gurion University (BGU).

Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel.
(Image: Jason Hiner)

Transparent armor

Dr Nachum Frage of the Materials Engineering Department at BGU has created a clear ceramic substance that is so strong it can stop a missile. This has obvious applications for windows in buildings and cars, and it's especially applicable in Israel, since missiles are fired at it by its neighbors on a weekly basis.

The bottom line is that this substance can create transparent armor. Since it is made out of a specially mixed powder that is heated according to a certain pattern and then molded like ceramics, there is some flexibility in shape and thickness.

The world already has bullet-proof glass on high-security limousines and the windows of high-security buildings, but making a window replacement that is strong enough to stop a missile is an important innovation. Professor Frage said that the new material also won't weaken and deteriorate over time as badly as glass does.

Frage also said that there are potentially "many, many" civilian uses for the new material. The first one he pointed out was for touchscreens in computing devices such as smartphones and tablets. Frage showed examples of the transparent armor that were as thin as 1mm. Once the material can be mass produced in an economical way, it could potentially replace today's glass touchscreens with a virtually unbreakable surface. That would be a welcome development for both consumers and phone makers, since broken screens are the most common fail point for today's mobile devices.

The entities bringing Frage's invention to market are BGN Technologies (the university's commercialization arm) and the Israeli firm Raphael.

Here's an example of the transparent armor material.
(Image: Jason Hiner)

A fully autonomous car

Dr Hugo Guterman of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at BGU showed a fully automated jeep that goes far beyond what Google's famous driverless cars can do. While Google's vehicles are still staffed with a human being — though a computer actually does the driving — the BGU prototype does not require a human being to be in the vehicle, and it is not even guided by remote control.

Instead, the BGU jeep is completely self-contained and automated. The researchers program it where to go and it goes. It can even understand how to behave at a four-way stop — which is one of the most complicated traffic scenarios that is common in the US (although not found in Israel).

BGU's Automated Guided Vehicle System (AGVS). (Image: Jason Hiner)

The BGU team refers to this as an autonomous and decentralized Automated Guided Vehicle System (AGVS). It clearly is loaded with lots of artificial intelligence for problem solving, route guidance, and right-of-way determination. BGU showed off its award-winning Jeep from several years ago, as well as its latest model, which cost $2 million to build, according the Guterman.

These aren't just lab experiments. The Israeli government has already taken this concept and used it to build eight to 10 of these vehicles and equipped them with high-end cameras. The AVGS vehicles are being used to help patrol the country's borders.

However, the concept also has potential civilian uses as well. The most impressive could be as an emergency services vehicle. The AGVS could go into dangerous situations like fires, chemical spills, and natural disasters where it would be too dangerous to send humans. This could provide valuable on-the-ground monitoring and information of dangerous situations and even assist in rescues.

The vehicles could also be used in transportation services, such as taxis. Most car accidents are caused by human error, so these vehicles are generally safer than human-operated vehicles. But, Guterman noted that putting these vehicles on the road with civilians faces a big obstacle when it comes to insurance and liability. He also added that the vehicles are better in open spaces than on city streets, at least for now.

More reports on the way

Over the next couple weeks, I'll be writing a multi-part series on more of the interesting technologies that I learned about during my trip to Israel. This will include a look at Israeli startups and its strong track record in technology innovation, as well as information on what Israeli researchers are working on in cybersecurity, big data, and more. The series will publish over on TechRepublic. For immediate access, you can follow my updates on Twitter or Google+ where I will share the links as soon as I publish each article.

UPDATE 3/7/2013, 5:15AM EST: Based on a correction from BGU, the AVGS cost $2 million to build, not $200 million. 

Topic: Emerging Tech

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  • I think Google's driverless cars are staffed by law rather than by tech

    "While Google’s vehicles are still staffed with a human being"

    If I remember correctly, that's mostly because of laws, not technology. People aren't really comfortable with driverless cars - and I don't blame them, because there are a LOT of unknowns. We won't know the true safety of driverless cars until they become more common.

    "Most car accidents are caused by human error, so these vehicles are generally safer than human-operated vehicles."

    Although I should note that the error generally falls into the category of "impaired driving" - drunk, texting, sleepy, overly aggressive, etc. A human that drives unimpaired can usually achieve a very safe record. A good driver can remain collision free (or at least at-fault free) for years.

    So I wouldn't say it's flat-out safer than any human. It's just that you can't get a driverless car drunk.

    That being said - bugs and security can become an issue.

    What's scary are the security issues - we're actually at a point where a malicious person can kill a driver by reprogramming the computer. No joke. Brakes, throttle, transmission, and even the door locks are often controlled by computer.
    • When driverless are more common...

      My Linux powered driverless car was pulled over today by a Windows powered driverless police car, and for no good reason. Now I will have go to a video court kiosk and pay the Windows fine.
      • Wonder if you'll get an Apple judge?

        Of course, if it were a Google judge, the verdict would
        already be known, and the appropriate fine debited
        from your bank account...hehe!
    • New murder-suicide vehicle

      In some regions, the number of mentally-unbalanced folk, who are willing to commit murder-suicide, has fallen so low, that such a vehicle will permit more mayhem than ever before. Since there will be no family to compensate, the cost may remain about the same.
      Ngallendou Dieye
    • brakes still works

      lucky for us most braking systems are still physically attached to the brake pedal. So while a computer can activate the brakes, it can't stop you from braking. So a malicious program cannot cause you to lose you brakes. Most of the other items you mention are controlled by a computer on many cars and those could be controlled by software.
    • You might want to check out the most recent Top Gear BBC episode

      Darpa's autonomous vehicle concept has resulted in at least one fully functioning two-ton (capacity) truck that was integrated and considered good enough to perform on television completely autonomously. In fact, the first thing they demonstrated was the truck approaching James May on the ground and coming to a stop just as it would have touched him. Honestly, you first think it's going to run him down. From then he discusses both the truck and a new Land Rover model as off-road vehicles.

      Clearly the Israeli Jeep isn't a new concept, but I'm almost certain that it has approached Darpa's result through different research and put it into a readily-available platform. Since I own a Jeep myself, I'm happy that's what they chose as their demonstrator/production model.
      • You might *not* want to check out any Top Gear episode

        Top Gear was caught red-handed fixing up the Tesla and Toyota Leaf electric car episodes to suggest that their ranges were unpredictably lower than advertised http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/aug/05/top-gear-bbc - Jeremy Clarkson's defence was "That's TV". Sadly, Top Gear's enormous commercial clout seem to have released it from the usual integrity requirements for BBC programs. So, not reliable evidence, I'm afraid.
    • Better reflexes

      I suspect that a computer-driven car would react a lot faster than a human to external stimuli. The average person has a 0.7 second latency. That's a huge amount of time in the computer world.
  • Slick

    I'd have to say, it's not the slickest looking of body kits, but it may make a Volvo look more appealing.

    And whilst this is driverless, there doesn't appear to be ANY room available in that car. Kind of defeats the purpose doesn't it?
  • Ceramic feedback

    Thank you for the nice article. I happen to meet with Head of Research Authority for Bar-ilan Univeristy today discussing new technologies. As one of my roles I serve as the Technical Director for the US Advanced Ceramics Association and have been in the military ceramics field for 30 years. The Spinel material you discuss is not new and is being produced in large sizes today by Armorline and Surmet for the strikeface on transparent armor windows and for EO/IR domes and sensor windows. It is a proven material for ballistic protection but cost remains an issue due to the need for high pressures and temperatures to convert the powder into bulk materials and to polish the finish material to achieve the desired transparency. It is very unlikely this material will ever be at the right price point for touch screens. It is also unlikely it would be any more durable at the required thickness and weight of current glass materials used in touchscreens. Corning Gorilla Glass is very durable. If this material can be converted at high temperatures but without high pressures and still achieve high transparency I would be very interested as will the market.
    • The difficult can be done immediately--

      The impossible will take just a little longer.

      Considering that the Israelis are describing this as a "new" material, it is possible that they have developed a newer, cheaper method to produce the material--though clearly it's not yet ready for mass production. Even glass isn't perfectly transparent, after all.
  • I think we should have a law that mandates that driveless cars always

    Have at least one human occupant capable of shutting it down in the event of an emergency.

    The last thing we need are driverless car bombs. Having a living person inside at least somewhat reduces that possibility.
  • Wait a second!

    "Polycrystalline Transparent Magnesium Aluminum Oxide (Spinel)"

    Could that be what has been passingly referred to as
    • Transparent Aluminum?

      Scotty would be pleased.
      digital riverrat
    • Yes! Another SciFi prediction

      Now, we can save the whales.
  • Driverless Car

    Thanks Jason. Could you please help elaborate on how they have improved over the Google driverless car? The passenger presence has already been addressed above. What technology have they developed that is superior? I have written a newspaper article about Singapore deploying the first Self Driving Car network (http://selfdrivingeconomy.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/why-singapore-should-go-driverless-the-straits-times/) and interested to see what R&D has performed in different markets.

    Daniel Morton