Which drone future comes faster? Andrey Sebrant, a leading Yandex specialist, is confident that we will start overtaking uncrewed trucks on long-distance routes behind the wheel of a personal car earlier than driving along these roads, lounging in the back seat of an uncrewed passenger car or an uncrewed taxi.
As cyberpunk father William Gibson remarked very accurately, the future has already arrived; it’s just unevenly distributed. This unevenness is geographic and sectoral: there are territories where the end can be touched first and specific areas in any industry where the future comes faster than the industry as a whole. Sometimes it turns out that these islands of the end are not formed exactly where the experts expected them, and indeed not where the press loudly predicted their appearance.
The auto industry and its closely related logistics business began to change faster even before the pandemic thanks to the competitive pressure of mighty tech giants – primarily Tesla, with its loud statements about the massive arrival of autonomous cars and Amazon with its powerful automation of logistics centers. But if now, in the search for the pictures, you ask the query “autonomous transport,” then the answer will be entirely ordinary cars with an unmanned body kit and mixed-caliber passenger buses, minibusses, shuttles. Such a picture has formed in the mass consciousness.
Autonomous cargo transportation and autonomous delivery of the “last mile,” although not so visible, are developing very actively, and the pandemic year gave this direction an additional acceleration. The requirement for the viability of business (and society itself) under quarantine conditions implies that within the critical infrastructure, it is desirable to minimize mandatory human participation. Let us recall the restrictions that we experienced and try to imagine that couriers cannot leave the house.
There is no one to get behind the wheel of a truck to deliver products from a factory or warehouse to the nearest distribution center or point of issue. The picture will immediately become apocalyptic, but already existing technologies make it possible to avoid the embodiment of this horror movie into reality.
From a technical point of view, long-distance cargo transportation is a more accessible automation object for several reasons. There are much fewer starting and ending points on such a route and the streets themselves compared to taxis. This means the proportionally less and required volume of roads marked on the map, less variety of road features that require additional training of the unmanned algorithm. There is absolutely no or much less urban traffic on the long-distance route with all its features such as undisciplined pedestrians, micromobility facilities (scooters, bicycles), blind traffic jams, and inconspicuous signs or markings. There is no task to ensure the safety of people who are inside the vehicle.
And it is already clear that all this is by no means theoretical reasoning – look at the latest news. In June, Amazon ordered 1,000 autonomous truck systems from startup Plus and acquired an option to buy 20% from the startup itself. California-based Plus already has experience working with Chinese delivery companies and said in April that trucks under its system travel 1,500 km every day – not a very large figure, but the trouble is the beginning.
The autonomous trucking niche is not just home to numerous startups. Traditional automakers are not ready to give it to newcomers: for example, Volvo or Scania are actively developing their projects in this area.
Startups worldwide are already massively testing autonomous last-mile delivery solutions, and here, too, you can see how logistics giants begin to pinpoint these solutions into their vast networks. FedEx, who needs no introduction, said in June that it began testing a compact autonomous delivery vehicle from Nuro in Houston, USA, in April 2021 – and this is not the first independent device in FedEx’s portfolio; there is already Roxo there. In-warehouse automation at FedEx has long been a priority for the company. It illustrates that the transition to unmanned technology is being explored at FedEx at all stages of the logistics service.
And, of course, small autonomous delivery robots can already be found not only in large logistics companies. Many startups around the world, including Russia, are field-testing their rovers for local delivery of ready-made food, groceries, or drugs. Pizza is a favorite subject for such tests in the United States: news in the spirit of “now a robot will bring pizza to Austin” appears in the information feeds almost every week. It’s not just the United States, but China has seen a similar boom in robotic delivery. In June, it reported that online retail giant JD.com is adding 30 new autonomous microvans to its autonomous fleet, delivering packages to 20 cities across the country.
Cargo transportation is not limited to road transport: great interest in autonomy is visible on the water, air, and railways. So the future in the transportation of goods has already begun to sprout synchronously in many places, and one day these areas will merge into a single system. If we return to the geography of this autonomous future, then it is worth noting: we have reason to hope for a meeting with an unmanned wagon not only on foreign trips. At the recently concluded SPIEF 2021, the government announced that it would create a test unmanned logistics corridor on the M-11 Neva highway over the next three years. By the end of the decade, unmanned corridors should cover almost 20,000 km of roads.
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