Innovations and Start-Ups: Picking Robots, Autonomous Trucking, and Drones

Martijn Graat
Martijn Graat

Trends and innovations in supply chain and logistics: that is what this blog is all bout. Therefore I bring you an overview of the news this week on logistics start-ups and innovations below. Follow @LogisticsMatter on Twitter to stay up to date with the latest news and the best background stories. The previous edition was Innovations and Start-ups: Drones & Robots, Autonomous Driving, and Crypto ATMs in Retail This edition has more news about Drones and Robots, news on autonomous driving and Tesla, Just Walk Out retail tech and Tive.

Keep on Truckin’ (~ Eddie Kendricks)

Great news for truck lovers. Tesla will finally start producing the Semi next year. The Rotterdam zero-emission transport company BREYTNER was one of the first in Europe to order the Tesla Semi, and I can’t wait for it to hit the Dutch roads. Also, Marie-José, one of BREYTNER’s founders promised me a ride! Check out the podcast I did with Marie-José and her brother Jeroen on zero-emission transportation here.

“We’ll be in production with Cybertruck next year, we’ll be in production with the Roadster, and with Semi,” Musk said on stage at the company’s “Cyber Rodeo” late April 7 in Austin, Texas.

“This year is all about scaling up, and then next year, there’s gonna be a massive wave of new products.”

Musk Says Tesla Semi Coming Next Year

The last mile is a subject that always gets a lot of attention. Nice to see some research being done on the middle mile. There is a lot to be gained there, and large retailers like Walmart are catching on to that.

Gatik has not recorded an incident to date. He also called out how the lanes of highways were “designed for autonomous trucks,” making middle mile logistics the perfect candidate. “Variability is amplified in other (legs of distribution and fulfillment),” he said. “Why spend 90% on the last 10% of a route, when there’s so much other ground to cover?”

Last fall, Ryder made an undisclosed investment in Gatik, whose technology will power autonomous middle mile deliveries for retail and ecommerce clients in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, initially equipping 20 leased Ryder box trucks for the purpose.

Autonomous Middle Mile: Exploring the Future

There was a nice article by Modern Shipper where several drone company CEO’s weigh in on drone delivery. It makes sense that they are positive about the outlook, and I tend to agree with them, albeit not for every situation. I’m not so sure dense urban areas are suitable for drone delivery. The skies might get a bit too busy. For me they make more sense for spacier suburbs, or even more remote areas. There is still much improvement potential when it comes to batteries, so more potential for longer distances as well.

While we’re still in the early days of drone delivery, the future is coming into clearer focus. A first-of-its-kind study in Christiansburg, Virginia — where we operate a drone delivery service — found nearly 90% approval for drone delivery, which is a positive indicator that when a community has firsthand experience with drone technology, they tend to find value in it. Other headwinds are the myriad benefits of drone delivery; it’s not only a faster and more convenient way to order goods, it’s a safer, less expensive and more sustainable way to deliver them. Among headwinds, creating a regulatory environment in which drone delivery can thrive is definitely a paramount issue to be worked out, but that’s increasingly happening.

The future of last-mile delivery includes drones

And if you ask Volovopter, they will probably predict a future with taxis flying over the city. Check out the footage of a recent test flight of their aircraft shared by

The VoloCity can carry two people and be flown autonomously, remotely, or by an onboard pilot. The aircraft has a top speed of 68 mph (110 kph) and a range of 22 miles (35 km), making it ideal for short urban hops. Despite the large number of rotors, Volocopter claims the VoloCity is four times quieter than a conventional helicopter, making for a more peaceful ride.

Watch Volocopter fly first full-size version of its unique aircraft

And the last item in this Innovations in Transportation section is a funny video that shows what happens when cops try and stop a self-driving vehice.

The footage shows the autonomous car, operated by GM-owned Cruise, waiting at a stoplight. As an officer emerges from his vehicle and approaches the robo-car, someone can be heard calling out, “Ain’t nobody in it.”

The officer peers into the vehicle, realizes that there is indeed no one inside, and returns to the police car.

At this point, the Cruise car looks like it’s about to flee the scene when it suddenly speeds off.

Officers confused as they pull over an empty self-driving car

Robot Stop (~ King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard)

I came across several interesting stories about robots in logistics. Let me start of with mentioning the conversation I had with Herbert ten Have, CEO of Fizyr, about picking robots. He was a guest on the Does Logistics Matter? Podcast, and we spoke about picking robots in the warehouse, and how robots will eventually replace workers in the wareyouse. You can find the episode here.

A robot in itself doesn’t have to be complex. It is a piece of machinery that can perform various movements from a static position or from a platform that can move around. If you don’t tell a robot precisely what to do and how to do it, it can punch right through a box or a bag or squeeze too hard and break something. Picking up something is where the complexity comes in.

Boxes can have different shapes and sizes, and it gets even more interesting when goods are oddly shaped or packed in a plastic bag. The software used to control the robot needs to learn the different shapes and sizes. Artificial intelligence and complex algorithms come into play.

Picking Robots in the Warehouse and How They Will Replace Humans

Another interesting read for those interested in picking robots:

Looking specifically at piece picking robots, people have great expectations for them in the distribution process. “This technology is fully capable of producing a high return on investment of time, money and people,” asserts Matt Kohler, director of applications at Bastian Solutions.

“Today, less than 5% of warehouses and distribution centers use piece picking robots,” says Lawton. “Within five years, that will be more than 80%. There will be many companies that will simply go out of business without piece picking robots,” he adds. That should have your attention.

Piece picking robots make their mark

MHD Supply Chain wrote about a different type of robot in the warehouse: the cobot. Where robots operate autonomously, cobots (collaborative robots) are designed to work with people, in stead of replacing them.

Using picking as an example, Körber research estimates that a warehouse operator completing a picking workflow will often walk around 10 to 15 kilometres a day. “A cobot can move stock in less time while the employees focus their energy and expertise on value-added tasks involved in the process,” Körber Supply Chain’s dedicated AMR team in APAC told MHD.

Of course, cobots can improve other workflows beyond picking. Any task that requires travel or carrying stock can be enhanced and completed by a cobot. While the machine does the heavy lifting, all the team member needs to do is pick and put products onto the cobot and it does the rest.

The rise of the cobot

If you don’t want to invest in robots, but still want to be enable to use them in your warehousing operation there is also the option of renting them. Raas. or Robots as a Service,

The time frame for a RaaS customer to achieve a full ROI depends on the supplier’s up-front fees. Locus customers typically experience full ROI within six to eight months of installation, said Rick Faulk, the company’s CEO. Mike Futch, president and CEO of Tompkins Robotics, an Orlando, Florida-based manufacturer of autonomous mobile robots (AMR) that launched its RaaS program at last month’s Modex conference in Atlanta, said a full ROI for its system can be as short as 3 months because the proposed start-up charges are nominal. Tompkins will charge a refundable deposit for the machines. The company’s customers will cover the costs of shipping the machines and for dispatching a technician to a site to maintain or repair the equipment.

Rent-a-robot concept delivers affordable automation to warehouse operators

Tell Me More and More and Then Some (~ Nina Simone)

Some other interesting articles on start-ups and innovations:

The Era of Fixing Your Own Phone Has Nearly Arrived

Amazon Fresh deepens its focus on Just Walk Out technology

Tive, a startup developing supply chain visibility tools, raises $54M

Header Image courtesy of Tesla

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