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The university hub that ‘Leeds’ by example

Universities often talk about their intentions to work more closely with industry and government but talking about collaboration is easier than ensuring it actually happens. This month, the University of Leeds is opening two state-of-the-art facilities that were created with collaboration and connectivity fully in mind. The Connected Places Catapult’s Academic Engagement Director Beata Szoboszlai has been along to the Nexus and Virtuocity centres for a taste of collaboration in action.

Last week, I totally wrote off the car I was driving in after misjudging a massive skid around a hairpin bend in heavy snow. A few seconds later, though, I restarted the engine and successfully steered the fully-repaired vehicle around the same turn in the road, this time in blazing sunshine and with perfect road conditions. If only real-life driving was as fun and risk-free as taking a spin in the University of Leeds driving simulator!

Behind that fun, however, lies some serious technology, not to mention some incredible research and business opportunities. Comprising a full-scale passenger vehicle housed in a large dome with wrap-around internal high-resolution projections, the simulator sits on a six degree-of-freedom hexapod which is, in turn, fixed to a five-metre X-Y track motion base.

 

This complex-sounding engineering, together with the accompanying computers and software, creates by far the most advanced driving simulator in the UK. Crucially, this enables researchers to faithfully reproduce the real-world in simulation. This enable systems, products and scenarios to be rapidly prototyped and tested in a safe environment and at a much-reduced cost, compared with building (and breaking) things in real life tests.

If this were a standalone piece of technology, it would be impressive enough. But the Leeds driving simulator is just part of the fully immersive ‘Virtuocity’ simulation and visualisation platform which the university will officially launch on June 13th. As well as the driving simulator, Virtuocity houses the Highly Immersive Kinematic Experimental Research (HIKER) lab, which allows for the modelling of pedestrian / vehicle interactions within the world’s largest 4K resolution ‘CAVE-based’ simulation environment.

A further dedicated ‘Truck SIM’ enables HGV-related research to be undertaken, while train travel will also be simulated, thanks to a dedicated two-compartment dome which can be mounted onto the base of the car simulator.

Fully connected

Perhaps the most exciting thing for those of us who work in the field of multi-modal transport solutions is the fact that all three simulation environments can be connected – enabling research participants to interact in an interlinked ‘multi-player’ environment, that could, for example, test how pedestrians, car drivers and truck drivers all interact with a simulated fleet of self-driving vehicles.

Academic engagement is about much more than having the right technology, however, so it’s reassuring to see that the connected nature of the University of Leeds’ technology is matched by a similarly connected approach to the commercialisation of that technology.

The university has already succeeded in creating over 110 companies in the last 20 years, six of which are now listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market with a combined value in excess of £500m. Now, it’s looking to further enhance its offering to the business world with the opening of a £40m state-of-the-art innovation hub, just a two-minute walk away from the Virtuocity facility.

The Nexus hub comprises offices and labs, as well as collaboration areas and event and meeting spaces – all of which has been designed to attract business from multiple sectors of industry, and enable them to connect with the expertise, talent and facilities available at the university. The overall aim is to help businesses to accelerate and de-risk the development of innovative ideas and products and to help the university to successfully commercialise the fruits of its research.

Catapult on board

This ethos of maximising the competitive advantage of UK-based companies through close collaboration between business, academia and local and national authorities is, of course, completely in line with our own approach within the Catapults programme. So, I am extremely excited that the Connected Places Catapult has already opened a new regional office within the Nexus building. We also relocated our 360° virtual reality Omnideck to the Leeds campus – further enhancing the university’s simulator capabilities and bringing the Catapult even closer to a host of companies who are working in this high growth area.

The University of Leeds is a shining example of how academic institutions can successfully engage with the business world, but I’m happy to say that they are not alone in this. The Connected Places Catapult has already signed Deep Academic Alliance (DAA) agreements with half a dozen UK universities (including Leeds) and we’re now looking forward to helping them as they further strengthen their ties with local businesses and leading companies nationwide.

With our DAA network now forming a 350-mile ‘spine’ from UCL in the south to the University of Newcastle in the north, I expect to be clocking up quite a bit of mileage on the country’s roads and rails as we cement these academic partnerships in the coming weeks and months. Based on my experience in the Leeds’ simulator, I hope it won’t be snowing too much…!

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