AUTONOMOUS DELIVERY / #2017
Will a robot take your job? Rise of the machines. A brave new world of autonomous vehicles could change the delivery landscape forever. Richard N Williams finds out more. Illustration: Pierluigi Longo.
Cover story. Autonomous delivery… The rise of autonomous vehicles could change the delivery landscape forever.
A lot has happened since Amazon announced its drone project in 2013 and forced the delivery industry to sit up and listen. Posts around the world are now not only experimenting with drone delivery, but some are also using the UAVs to deliver parcels on a day-to-day basis.
“We are further along than many people think,” says Brody Buhler, managing director for postal and parcel at management consulting and outsourcing organization Accenture. “A lot more experiments are going on than are made public, but we do know that companies like Deutsche-Post , Swiss-Post and Posti are all working on them.”
Buhler says postal operators are delivering parcels daily using drones, with companies is well tested. The economics for drone delivery are so compelling, it will advance as fast as the regulatory framework allows.”
Piloting drones Postal operators across Europe are fully aware of the opportunities presented by drone delivery. In many countries, urban drone testing is restricted by tough regulations, but several posts have been conducting test flights in rural areas, where they see drone flights having the most financial advantage. “In cities, delivery by postmen is still very efficient, but here in Switzerland, we have a lot of mountains and rural areas,”explains Janick Mischler, project manager for development and innovation at Swiss Post. “That’s where we are looking for business cases, because it will save so much time and money.”
He says Swiss Post began experimenting with drones in 2015, but it has advanced from simple test flights to planning actual deliveries. “We have found some business cases that make sense,” says Mischler, “and we begin real deliveries in spring this year.”
Mischler believes there may be other opportunities for drone use beyond the last mile. “We are still learning, but I think all applications will have to be specific. I can see the advantage, for instance, of using drones between warehouses within the company, transporting goods from one hub to another, but currently we are focused on getting more experience with the technology.”
Swiss Post has teamed up with US drone manufacturer Matternet. The drone is a very light construction, so it can only carry small packages up to 1kg (2.2 lb), but it can travel over 10km (6 miles) without human control. “All of our drones are fully autonomous.
They don’t need a pilot; everything is computer-controlled. I think this is the only way to go. Not only does it save on having an operator, but it also eliminates human error,” comments Mischler.
He adds that they are now planning longer trips up to 30km (18 miles). “This is not beyond the current technology, I don’t think,” Mischler says. “We are in discussions now working out how to make it happen.”
Safe flight? Many postal operators have found drone delivery to be full of challenges. In January 2016 for example, DHL was forced to cancel a media demonstration of its nextgeneration DHL Parcelcopter 2.0 due to bad weather. The Parcelcopter project’s maiden flight was in December 2014. An unmanned aircraft successfully delivered packages from the city of Norden in northern Germany to the North Sea island of Juist – a distance of 12km (7.5 miles).
Bad weather is a major challenge for drone delivery. Posti trialled a robot helicopter in September 2015 in Helsinki, between the mainland and the island of Suomenlinna, a distance of approximately 4km (2.5 miles), but things didn’t go completely to plan. “The main target of the pilot, to deliver a parcel successfully, was achieved,” says Jukka Rosenberg, senior vice president for parcel and logistic services at Posti. “However we did identify areas where the technology could be improved in order for it to be more stable during windy conditions.”
He says the copter, built by Finnish company Sharper Shape, was computercontrolled but the post used a human pilot for take-off and landing, for safety reasons. “It successfully negotiated telephone wires, trees and cell phone masts, however over the sea it became a little unstable due to the wind. It made it, but I don’t think the technology is 100% reliable yet,” admits Rosenberg.
“I do think there is lots of potential, though,” he adds. “For rural areas it definitely makes sense. We could also see it as a premium service in urban areas, perhaps for same-day business deliveries.”
Robot postmen Regulations governing drone use in cities are very prohibitive in most parts of the world, and fears over security and safety may mean drone use in our towns and cities is a long way off.
However, aerial drones are not the only form of autonomous delivery system that is currently being tested. Launched by former Skype founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, Starship Technologies has unveiled and tested a fleet of autonomous robots for the last-mile delivery of local goods, groceries and parcels.
Starship’s COO, Allan Martinson, explains, “It’s a self-driving, slow-speed robot, designed to deliver most sizes of packages people receive in their home. They can carry up to 40 lbs in weight.”
Martinson says the robot, so far unnamed, is fitted with an array of sensors, cameras, a GPS system, and is guided by a pre-programmed map of the area it operates in, accurate to within a quarter of an inch, and it could provide huge savings for postal operators.
“We are pretty sure that the last mile will eventually be dominated by robots like this. Aerial drones are fine in rural areas but not urban environments. Currently the last mile is very inefficient when you take into account fuel, labor and vehicle costs. We can cut last mile costs to less than a dollar,” claims Martinson.
He says Starship piloted the robots in 2015, racking up 500km (300 miles) and this year the company has partnered with several businesses and plans to trial actual deliveries. “At the moment we have a radius of one to two miles because that is the most cost-effective distance, and we are looking at more suburban areas rather than, say, London’s Oxford Street with its high volume of pedestrians,” comments Martinson.
One of the big concerns with unmanned vehicles like this is security and preventing theft of the packages, but Martinson says they have this issue covered. “We’re well protected. We have live feed from nine cameras, seeing 360° around, tamper sensors, and a lockable lid that is very difficult to break open,” he explains. “We’ve tested it and it took six to seven minutes to access. By that time we could have come to assist the robot. Besides, it’s far safer than leaving a package on a doorstep, which can happen these days.”
At the moment, Starship says its robots would cost in the region of US$2,000, a cost the company thinks posts could easily recoup in last-mile savings.
Posts are watching this sort of technology with interest, keen to reduce last-mile costs and find new solutions. “We have been investigating and trying to understand what is going on at the moment. We are very interested in all these advances. So far aerial drones seem to be the most advanced but I think it will all progress very quickly,” argues Posti’s Rosenberg.
Swiss Post’s Mischler agrees: “I think the future will involve a combination of technologies, drones, robot postmen and self-driving vehicles. We will choose the most efficient.”
Driverless delivery The self-driving vehicle is another technology that is not too far off. Google pioneered the concept and now a race is on to bring a fully selfdriving autonomous vehicle to the market, which could have huge implications for post and last-mile delivery.
In February this year ( #2016
took a step toward developing an autonomous delivery solution when it was awarded a patent on self-driving delivery trucks that could deliver packages to homes. The patent explains that the truck would be full of compartments that people can open using a passcode or credit card. The vehicle would use radar, video cameras and range-finding lasers to see the road and traffic around it.
“Self-driving vehicles can have real implications for postal delivery. A postman parks his van, walks to deliver letters down a street, and then has to walk back to his van. That’s a lot of wasted time. What if the van could follow, park itself, or even move to the next delivery location, all while the postman is preparing deliveries?” asks Accenture’s Buhler. Major car makers, including #Audi
are all developing the technology, and Volvo has a system that could be ready for trials on roads next year.
“Autopilot is an autonomous driving functionality that allows the driver to do something else behind the steering wheel when it is activated,” explains Volvo’s Marcus Rothoff, autonomous driving program director. At the moment the system is cloudcontrolled, so drivers will be limited to using it in quiet areas where there are few oncoming cars and low numbers of pedestrians. “The car is equipped with sensors to ensure the vehicle understands its surroundings.
Cameras, radars, ultrasonic sensors and lidar [laser radar] are used, as well as a detailed 3D digital map and a high-performance global positioning system so that the car knows exactly where it is and can navigate safely on the dedicated road sections,” Rothoff says. Next year Volvo will be trialling the system in Gothenburg – a pilot that will include 100 cars used by real consumers on public roads. It is hoped that the system will be commercially available by 2020.
But the technology will need to advance and cope with high-density areas if it is to benefit the postal service. “Low-speed autonomous driving is a potential next step for the automotive industry,” comments Rothoff. “Delivery solutions might be in the future. From a technology point of view, this should be possible within the next 5-10 years. Last-mile delivery, driving at low speeds, offers a safe application in less complex environments in about the same timeframe.”
Above: Volvo’s autonomous car will be trialled in Gothenburg in 2017 Below left: Sensors ensure the car understands its surroundings Below: Volvo customers will be able to remotely connect with their car.
Next-generation robots take over the warehouse In January 2016 transportation and logistics provider DB Schenker successfully completed the implementation of a new automated online order fulfillment and returns handling system in its Arlandastad Logistics Center near Stockholm, Sweden. The CarryPick solution, developed by Swisslog, is an automated storage and goods to person order picking system, which uses robots (also known as automated guided vehicles) to drive underneath mobile racks and deliver them to pick stations. The solution is operated DB Schenker for Lekmer.com, Scandinavia’s largest online toy retailer.
The CarryPick system runs on intelligent software that has been linked to a warehouse management system. Due to its modular design, the solution can be expanded to face seasonable peaks or growth in the customer’s business. According to DB Schenker, it increases staff productivity by up to 60%.
Anders Holmberg, business development manager, #DB-Schenker
, Sweden, says, “With more than 60 robots and 1,550 mobile racks, we are able to manage 35,000 different articles, every day. And pick up to 40,000 orders per day.”
Autonomous technology could revolutionize delivery, but what sort of vehicles could we see delivering the parcels of tomorrow? Here are some ideas that could one day be on our streets.
In September 2015, #Posti
carried out a four-day experiment to test the use of drones in mail delivery.
An idea by industrial design student Leighton McDonald, from Savannah, Georgia, USA, the RDV is aimed at city use. With a proposed extendable chassis, the vehicle can transport and deliver packages ranging in size from small parcels to large freight. The resizable vehicle transforms from a truck into a small transporter for smaller deliveries.
Proposed by innovation and design firm Ideo, Cody is a transparent vehicle made from a carbon-composite x-frame to save weight. The idea is that packages are tracked in real time and Cody uses algorithms to find the quickest route, can change destinations on demand, and can even sort packages inside using vacuum power and a robotic arm.
A concept by Israeli student #Kobi-Shikar
, Transwheel is an autonomous robotic wheel that can combine with other Transwheels to carry packages of any size. With a selfbalancing system and electric arm to carry the load, Transwheel could carry cargo from single parcels to truck-sized loads by working with other units.
Created by freelance industrial designer #Martin-Rico
from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ecotranzit may look like a truck but its small size means it could ride on roads or sidewalks, carrying up to 110kg of parcels. Completely autonomous, it would be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell or battery pack, ensuring it is environmentally friendly and quiet.
Distribution truck with autonomous containers
Entered for the James Dyson Award by mechanical engineer and industrial design student Dubur Stéphane from France, the concept is aimed at last-mile delivery. The truck carries three autonomous electric containers, which can be unloaded at the edge of the city and then make their own way to the delivery location, reducing congestion and freeing the city from heavy goods vehicles.
In September #2015
carried out a four-day experiment to test the use of drones in mail delivery.
Starship robots can be used to deliver parcels in suburban areas.
Matternet’s lightweight drone is set to transform last-mile logistics.
Swiss Post and Matternet have been testing drone delivery since July 2015.
For postal organizations to begin wide-scale drone operations, the first thing that will need to change is regulations. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority forbids unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) use within 150m (490ft) of a congested area and 50m (165ft) of a person. In the USA, the FAA forbids all commercial use of drones without special permission. However, many think the laws will soon change.
“What we will see is consumers, not commercial industries, driving a change in the regulations. So many people are using drones now, for photography and such like, there will have to be change,” comments Accenture’s Brody Buhler. “I think in the USA they are looking at some sort of register.
In some European countries, things are already becoming more flexible, allowing far more testing. “Here in Switzerland, the Federal Office of Civil Aviation is very progressive,” says Swiss Post’s Janick Mischler. “We have had many discussions about what we are planning to do and they are very open-minded. Flights over cities are not forbidden as long as we fulfill the requirements.”
“Whether we will see drone delivery in urban areas will definitely depend on the regulations,” adds Posti’s Jukka Rosenberg. “I know that the government in Finland is looking at it. I don’t think we will see drones landing outside buildings, but I can see a situation where we have drone hubs, where you can go to pick up and drop off a package.”