Don’t get stuck, pop into a pod

Within a few years passengers at Heathrow Airport could be whisked between terminals in futuristic driverless taxis. The technology behind these four-seater computer-controlled vehicles has been developed by Bristol University spin-out company ATS.

It celebrated its first major agreement recently when airports operator BAA chose its Ultra system for a trial at Heathrow.

Eighteen of the pods will run on a track between Terminal One and a perimeter car park at speeds of up to 25mph in the year-long experiment.

If successful BAA aims to use the pods at other Heathrow terminals and eventually at some of its other airports, which include Gatwick.

BAA has also paid £7.5million for a 25 per cent stake in ATS.

The milestone came more than 10 years after ATS developed its technology, which is seen as a major step towards computer controlled, low-pollution cars.

During the long prototyping process, ATS received a vital grant of £114,000 from the Grant for Research and Development scheme administered by the South West RDA which was awarded to help develop a safe and reliable automatic control system to guide people to their desired destination.

The grant, awarded in December 2003, helped ATS take another important step towards delivering this innovative, sustainable transport system.

The company now believes the system may have broader applications and is investigating patenting the technology. ATS founder Professor Martin Lowson said:“Without the grant, the system would simply not be where it is today.

“The award demonstrated faith in the transport system we are developing and the funding helped us develop robust guidance techniques which are essential to making it effective.

“I would encourage other companies with innovative R &D ideas to apply for a grant under this scheme.”

ATS was advised in this and in two previous rounds of investment by Alan Bristow and James Thomas of ICON Corporate Finance. About the deal, Alan Bristow said “ATS have a world class product and this investment will considerably enhance the company’s progress. I have no doubt ATS will become the leading company in the PRT sector”. Further commenting about the deal, James Thomas said “We have worked with the management of ATS for over two and a half years and are very pleased to have helped close this latest significant level of funding with BAA which will see the ULTra system into commercial deployment at Heathrow. ATS has assembled a world-class team and BAA clearly recognise the commercial potential of the ULTra system as well as the Company’s global technological leadership.”