By on July 25, 2010


Two robots are retracing the tracks of Marco Polo and are on their way from Italy to China. The two heavily modified driverless Piaggio Porter Electric vans started last week in front of of the Milan Cathedral. By end of October they are expected to arrive in Shanghai after having driven 8,000 miles, all the way through Siberia and the Gobi Desert, all by themselves, untouched by human hands.

Well, kind of.

Both vans carry technicians who can intercede when things get dicey. I mean, imagine two robots rolling up to a border post between Kazakhstan and China, and with a metallic voice, they say “we come in peace, take us to your leader.” To avoid misunderstandings, team members will take control of the lead vehicle “every time a decision on the road has to be taken,” say the organizers. Whenever inhumanly possible, the vans will drive autonomously most of the time. One problem is that there are no maps for some parts of the route, so the guys in the lead vehicle have to be able to ask for directions.

Of course, the robotic vans have their own blog, with live tracking via Google maps. (Currently, the vans appear to run in circles outside of Parma.)

Of course the vans are purely EV. They have solar panels to power the computer gadgetry. The EV batteries will be charged overnight. Hydrocarbons to the rescue if there is no power outlet to be found in the Gobi Desert, or someone has forgotten the proper adapter: The team carries gasoline generators. The convoy also has spare vans, in case of breakdowns.

Navigating the congested streets of Italy and dealing with the crazy drivers is probably the biggest challenge, as an article on CBS News shows.

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4 Comments on “Robovan II: Italy To China, Untouched By Human Hands...”


  • avatar
    thirty-three

    What route are they taking? Marco Polo never went to China:

    http://rspas.anu.edu.au/eah/Marcopolo.html

    I guess they’re going to follow whatever route he fabricated for his book.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      They have a theory, good for them.

      I’m tired of people trying to rewrite history. Marco Polo went to China, Christopher Columbus was a great man, and Pluto is a planet, now get off my lawn.

    • 0 avatar

      @Nullo: But then Eris is also planet based on its 1.3x greater mass than Pluto’s!

      And you know that folks from both our undergrad schools helped muck that up…

      Don’t get me started on Columbus. He drove a Quattroporte, right?

  • avatar
    forraymond

    @ NulloModo

    Here! Here! I second that “get off my lawn” comment.

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