Despite the fact that it constantly seems like we’re in the midst of a robotics- and artificial intelligence-driven revolution, there are a number of tasks that continue to elude even the best machine learning algorithms and robots. The clothing industry is an excellent example, where the flimsy materials can easily trip up robotic manipulators. But one task like this that seems like it might soon be solve is packing cargo into trucks, as FedEx is trying to do with one of their new robots.
Part of the reason this task is so difficult is that packing problems, similar to “traveling salesman” problems, are surprisingly complex. The packages are not presented to the robot in any particular order, and need to be efficiently placed according to weight and size. This robot, called DexR, uses artificial intelligence paired with an array of sensors to get an idea of each package’s dimensions, which allows it to then plan stacking and ordering configurations and ensure secure fits between all of the other packages. The robot must also be capable of quickly adapting if any packages shift during stacking and re-order or re-stack them.
As robotics platforms and artificial intelligence continue to improve, it’s likely we’ll see a flurry of complex problems like these solved by machine instead of by human. Tackling real-world tasks are often more complex than they seem, as anyone with a printer an a PC LOAD LETTER error can attest to, even handling single sheets of paper can be a difficult task for a robot. Interfacing with these types of robots can be a walk in the park, though, provided you read the documentation first.
For as popular as they became during the COVID-19 lockdowns, grocery delivery services like InstaCart rely on a basic assumption to work: that customers know exactly what they want when they order. Once that hurdle is overcome, the transaction is simple — the driver accepts the job, drives to the store to pick up the order, and takes it to the customer. It requires the use of a fair amount of technology to coordinate everything, but by and large it works, and customers are generally willing to pay for the convenience.
But what if you could cut out that step where the driver goes to pick up your order? What if instead of paying someone to pick and pack your order and bring it to your front step, you just ordered up the whole store instead? That’s the idea behind Robomart, which seeks to deploy a fleet of mobile stores for when the convenience store isn’t quite convenient enough. And the way the company is choosing to roll out its service, not to mention the business model itself, may hold key lessons for other delivery automation platforms.
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: The Convenience Store That Comes To Your Door”
After getting a 3D printer up and running, it’s not uncommon for an enterprising hacker to dabble in 3D printing to make a little money on the side. Offering local pickup of orders is a common startup choice since it’s simple and avoids shipping entirely. It’s virtually tailor-made to make a great bootstrapping experiment, but anyone who tries it sooner or later bumps up against a critical but simple-seeming problem: how to get finished prints into a customer’s hands in a sustainable way that is not a hassle for either the provider, or the customer?
It’s very easy to accept a 3D file and get paid online, but the part about actually getting the print into the customer’s hands does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. This is what I call The Pickup Problem, and left unsolved, it can become unsustainable. Let’s look at why local pickup doesn’t always measure up, then examine possible solutions.
The Problems with Local Pickup
Local pickup for delivery of print jobs is great because there is no mucking about with shipping supplies or carriers. Also, many 3D prints when starting out will be relatively low-value jobs that no one is interested in stacking shipping fees onto, anyway.
“Your order is complete. Come to this address to pick up your order.” It is straightforward and hits all the bases, so what’s the problem?
Continue reading “3D Printering: Selling Prints, And Solving The Pickup Problem”
It should come as no surprise that we here at Hackaday are big boosters of autonomous systems like self-driving vehicles. That’s not to say we’re without a healthy degree of skepticism, and indeed, the whole point of the “Automate the Freight” series is that economic forces will create powerful incentives for companies to build out automated delivery systems before they can afford to capitalize on demand for self-driving passenger vehicles. There’s a path to the glorious day when you can (safely) nap on the way to work, but that path will be paved by shipping and logistics companies with far deeper pockets than the average commuter.
So it was with some interest that we saw a flurry of announcements in the popular press recently regarding automated deliveries. Each by itself wouldn’t be worthy of much attention; companies are always maneuvering to be seen as ahead of the curve on coming trends, and often show off glitzy, over-produced videos and well-crafted press releases as a low-effort way to position themselves as well as to test markets. But seeing three announcements at one time was unusual, and may point to a general feeling by manufacturers that automated deliveries are just around the corner. Plus, each story highlighted advancements in areas specifically covered by “Automate the Freight” articles, so it seemed like a perfect time to review them and perhaps toot our own horn a bit.
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Autonomous Delivery Hits The Mainstream”
We’ve been occasionally exploring examples of what could be the killer application for self-driving vehicles: autonomous freight deliveries, both long-haul and local, as well as some special use cases. Some, like UAV delivery of blood and medical supplies in Kenya, have taken off and are becoming both profitable and potentially life-saving. Others, like driverless long-haul trucking, made an initial splash but appear to have gone quiet since then. This is to be expected, as the marketplace picks winners and losers in a neverending quest to maximize return on investment. But the whole field seems to have gotten a bit sleepy lately, with no big news of note for quite a while.
That changed last week with Amazon’s announcement of Scout, their autonomous delivery vehicle. Announced first on Amazon’s blog and later picked up by the popular and tech press who repeated the Amazon material almost verbatim, Scout appears at first glance to be a serious attempt by Amazon to own the “last mile” of delivery – the local routes that are currently plied by the likes of UPS, FedEx, and various postal services. Or is it?
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Amazon Tackles The Last Mile Problem On Wheels”
Picture this: you’re at home and you hear a rapping on your door. At last!– your parcel has arrived. You open the door, snatch a drone out of the air, fold it up, remove your package, unfold it and set it down only for it to take off on its merry way. Hand-delivery courier drones might be just over the horizon.
Designed in the [Laboratory of Intelligent Systems] at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and funded by [NCCR Robotics], this delivery drone comes equipped with its own collapsible carbon fibre shield — it fold up small enough to fit in a backpack — and is able to carry packages such as letters, small parcels, and first aid supplies up to 500 g and to 2 km away!
Continue reading “Delivery Drone Aims To Make Package Handoffs Safer Than Ever”
Ships at sea are literally islands unto themselves. If what you need isn’t on board, good luck getting it in the middle of the Pacific. As such, most ships are really well equipped with spare parts and even with raw materials and the tools needed to fabricate most of what they can’t store, and mariners are famed for their ability to make do with what they’ve got.
But as self-sufficient as a ship at sea might be, the unexpected can always happen. A vital system could fail for lack of a simple spare part, at best resulting in a delay for the shipping company and at worst putting the crew in mortal danger. Another vessel can be dispatched to assist, or if the ship is close enough ashore a helicopter rendezvous might be arranged. Expensive options both, which is why some shipping companies are experimenting with drone deliveries to and from ships at sea. Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Maritime Drone Deliveries”