Automate The Freight: Autonomous Delivery Hits The Mainstream

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.

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Automate The Freight: Amazon Tackles The Last Mile Problem On Wheels

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?

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Delivery Drone Aims To Make Package Handoffs Safer Than Ever

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!

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Automate The Freight: Maritime Drone Deliveries

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”

Amazon Gets A Patent For Parachute Labels

Delivery by drone is a reality and Amazon has been pursuing better and faster methods of autonomous package delivery. The US Patent and Trademark Office just issued a patent to Amazon for a shipping label that has an embedded parachute to ensure soft landings for future deliveries.

The patent itself indicates the construction consisting of a set of cords and a harness and the parachute itself is concealed within the label. The label will come in various shapes and sizes depending upon the size of the package and is designed to “enable the workflow process of shipping and handling to remain substantially unchanged”. This means they are designed to look and be used just like a normal printed label.

The objective is to paradrop your next delivery and by the looks of the patent images, they plan to use it for everything from eggs to the kitchen sink. Long packages will employ multiple labels with parachutes which will then be monitored using the camera and other sensors on the drone itself to monitor descent.

The system will reduce the time taken per delivery since the drone will no longer have to land and take off. Coupled with other UAV delivery patents, Amazon may be looking at more advanced delivery techniques. With paradrops, the drone need not be a multi rotor design and the next patent may very well be a mini trajectory correction system for packages.

If they come to fruition we wonder how easy it will be to get your hands on the labels. Materials and manufacture should both be quite cheap — this has already been proven by the model rocket crowd, and to make the system viable for Amazon it would have to be put into widespread use which brings to bear an economy of scale. We want to slap them on the side of beer cans as an upgrade to the catapult fridge.

Automate The Freight: Medical Deliveries By Drone

Being a cop’s kid leaves you with a lot of vivid memories. My dad was a Connecticut State Trooper for over twenty years, and because of the small size of the state, he was essentially on duty at all times. His cruiser was very much the family vehicle, and like all police vehicles, it was loaded with the tools of the trade. Chief among them was the VHF two-way radio, which I’d listen to during long car rides, hearing troopers dispatched to this accident or calling in that traffic stop.

One very common call was the blood relay — Greenwich Hospital might have had an urgent need for Type B+ blood, but the nearest supply was perhaps at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The State Police would be called, a trooper would pick up the blood in a cooler, drive like hell down I-95, and hand deliver the blood to waiting OR personnel. On a good day, a sufficiently motivated and skilled trooper could cover that 45-mile stretch in about half an hour. On a bad day, the trooper might end up in an accident and in need of blood himself.

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Autonomous Delivery And The Last 100 Feet

You’ve no doubt by now seen Boston Dynamics latest “we’re living in the future” robotic creation, dubbed Handle. [Mike Szczys] recently covered the more-or-less-official company unveiling of Handle, the hybrid bipedal-wheeled robot that can handle smooth or rugged terrain and can even jump when it has to, all while remaining balanced and apparently handling up to 100 pounds of cargo with its arms. It’s absolutely sci-fi.

[Mike] closed his post with a quip about seeing “Handle wheeling down the street placing smile-adorned boxes on each stoop.” I’ve recently written about autonomous delivery, covering both autonomous freight as the ‘killer app’ for self-driving vehicles and the security issues posed by autonomous delivery. Now I want to look at where anthropoid robots might fit in the supply chain, and how likely it’ll be to see something like Handle taking over the last hundred feet from delivery truck to your door.

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